Denise Cohen (l) & Ruchama Mazaltov Cohen

An ESRA Modiin Voluntary Service to the Community

The first week of ulpan, I nearly passed out. I was one of 35 enthusiastic immigrants, bright-eyed and eager to begin learning Ivrit - the essential first step to integrate successfully into Israeli society.

It wasn’t the teachers, whose levels of encouragement and optimism never seemed to waver, or the cheerfully illustrated textbooks depicting all aspects of history and daily life presented to each of us with positive expectations.

What dawned on me with alarm that week was that I was back at school again, and during the five months that followed the pace and workload were relentless, the daily two to three hours of homework exhausting, and somewhere between learning my address and ID number from memory, and frantically trying to recall whether a river is masculine or feminine (and did it really matter?), I shrunk lower and lower in my seat, in the hope that I wouldn’t be singled out to answer any questions, and silently prayed for hometime.

I had promised my husband that however difficult, I would persevere, and throughout the five months my vocabulary did improve - we had learnt over 220 verbs, I could identify a lone word or phrase in a sea of conversation, and could even respond to the simplest of questions, but by the end of Kita Aleph, I had had enough.

Before attending ulpan I could neither read nor write Hebrew and my introduction to it was daunting.

As a speech and drama teacher my background is in communication, and therefore the idea of learning conversational Hebrew at a more relaxed pace appealed greatly.

At a fair promoting volunteer organizations in Modiin last December, while assisting at the ESRA booth, I met Riki Rafaeli, a friendly and warmhearted Israeli, who was responsive to the idea of initiating a group whereby English and Hebrew speakers could meet to converse at a regular time and place of their choice. This idea was hardly new or innovative, but previous attempts by some to join an existing group never materialized, and the enthusiasm from fellow immigrants was immediate, positive and encouraging. There was a genuine gap to fill in the community.

Jackie Klein and Cynthia Barmor, co-chairs of ESRA Modiin, loved the concept, saw the potential and offered ESRA’s support to start the project. Riki would liaise with the Israeli participants; I with the English speakers. After spreading the word at ulpan, and advertising on local English and Israeli email listings, amongst a flurry of activity and excitement, the first meeting of “Let’s Talk” was held on the March 31, 2011.

Thirty-five people attended. The first session of “Let’s Talk” was to be the pilot for further ventures. The aim was to cover a two-month period, during which, we hoped, like-minded partners would meet once a week over coffee, at a time and venue of their choice, to discuss topics of mutual interest, which could cover a vast range of subjects, from reading newspapers, discussing politics, theater, family, shopping, food and family dynamics, to art, music and literature. Half of the weekly meeting would be conducted in English; the other half in Ivrit. Because at that stage we had no other means of selecting who would partner whom, we suggested mingling and chatting over refreshments, to select a likely partner. (On a lighter note we stressed that this wasn’t a dating agency!)

The evening was relaxed and pleasant, and those who had been strangers when they arrived, left after a delicious tea and refreshments with new contacts and the potential for friendships to be formed.

The highlight was the generosity of spirit and warmth of the Israelis who attended the evening. Each had a far superior level of English than our levels of Ivrit, and all said that the main purpose of their attendance was to befriend and encourage us. This generally took precedence over their desire to improve their English.

On a personal note my partner Riki and I, and our husbands Eric and Toots, met on a regular basis in each other’s homes. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to sample Israeli dishes, experience casual relaxed Israeli hospitality and stumble through our discussions of the week.

As with all beginnings there is a learning curve; some personalities clashed, meeting times didn’t always coincide, holidays halted the momentum; but generally the project was most successful. For future sessions, pre-registration will be obligatory, whereby levels of verbal and written ability, ages, areas of interest and occupational information will assist us in better pairing participants prior to their meetings.

Our second “Let’s Talk” venture was on November 3. It was a tremendous success with over 50 people attending. The room was filled with excitement and the enthusiasm exhibited by the participants was contagious. It was alive with people chatting away to their heart's content. 

This is a fascinating Language Matchmaking program bringing together different groups of people to let's talk together for language development. Practicing and learning to speak Ivrit without pressure, with the help of Israelis wishing to speak English, is important, and the potential to reach out to the continuous flow of immigrants is endless. We’re excited to see where it leads. 

For inquiries and registration, please contact:

Brenda (English Coordinator) at brendagbrett@gmail.com

Cynthia (Hebrew Coordinator) at cynthia@bezeqint.net 050 825 1923

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