One evening in July, the asylum-seeking community in Jerusalem gathered at JACC to play trivia and celebrate the end of a year of Hebrew classes. As community members clustered in small groups to work together to write down the answers to Hebrew trivia, Yuli Hatzofe, a volunteer at the center, paced between the teams, giving tips to her students.
Yuli is finishing her first year at the Hebrew University studying political science and education. She is soon to become JACC’s Hebrew studies and cultural coordinator, where she will begin designing workbooks and curriculum for the different levels of Hebrew classes JACC offers. She joined the center in December after finishing her military service. In the army, she taught Hebrew to Bedouin soldiers in her unit. It was there that she learned the importance a new language can have to someone in a foreign environment.
“Giving people the ability to express themselves in language is like helping them feel they belong,” Yuli said. “Once you have a language you can show who you are.”
For many of her students, not being able to speak Hebrew is a barrier to them, making it difficult for them to integrate into Israeli society. In addition to the social obstacles, asylum seekers who don’t speak Hebrew have a difficult time obtaining healthcare and visas and explaining why they are in the country.
Furthermore, some of her students struggle with helping to educate their own children because they speak less Hebrew than them. When parents struggle to communicate with their children in the language of the country they live in, it creates a divide between the generations, Yuli said.
In Yuli’s classes, she teaches her students more than just the Hebrew language. For those of her students who have never studied in formal school systems, she had to teach them the mechanics of the Hebrew workbooks—how fill in the blank, multiple choice and written exercises are meant to be completed. Having recently moved to Israel, the classroom dynamics here are foreign to many of her students.
Furthermore, Yuli said she feels that preparing her students to live in Israeli society means more than teaching them Hebrew. She brings philosophy and history into her classes to prepare and inspire her students in the same way that she is inspired in her university classes.
“Why shouldn’t they feel the same?” she said. “I want them to be interested in coming back every class.”
Yuli hopes teaching asylum seekers about civil rights, feminism, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Locke’s philosophy of equality will help them process the troubles they have been through as well as prepare for and inspire them to face the difficulties and injustices they will encounter in Israeli society.
“Part of the adjustment is to talk about liberal ideas,” she said. “The best thing you can do when teaching is to connect the content to their personal life.”
During these discussions, Yuli said she always tries to encourage dialogue and be as open as possible with her students. As she teaches them about current events in Israel, she engages in difficult conversations about political movements and the differences between cultures. She does this, she said, because she believes in her students.
“The more you believe in someone the more you demand from them,” she said.
And, she added, when she asked her students at trivia night what parts of the class they liked best, they said the lessons about the world, Israel and Jerusalem were their favorites.
In addition to being a student favorite, the moments Yuli felt most pleased with her class was when they were debating politics in Hebrew.
“That’s the most Israeli thing you can do. That’s the moment when I felt, ‘We did something here.’”