In Israel, Hebrew as a Second Language Unlocks Opportunity

In Israel, Hebrew as a Second Language Unlocks Opportunity

Students participate in JDC TEVET's Hebrew as a second language course (held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic). For many Israeli Arabs, Hebrew language skills are empowering, unlocking new opportunities for employment and economic mobility.

Students participate in JDC TEVET's Hebrew as a second language course (held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic). For many Israeli Arabs, Hebrew language skills are empowering, unlocking new opportunities for employment and economic mobility.

By: Saeed Diabat - JDC-TEVET Program Manager

When I first started working for JDC in Israel, I didn’t talk about it a lot, but now someone in my village asks me just about every week: What’s it like to work there? What are they trying to achieve?

From that question, I find myself explaining all of JDC’s projects and how important they are, not just for the Arab community in Israel but also wider Israeli society. JDC in Israel works to ensure every group can fulfill its maximum potential.

I was born in the village of Tur’an, in the Galilee, and I lived there until I was 18, when I went to college to study engineering. I soon realized that wasn’t the right path for me, though. I wanted to work more directly with people and help my community, so I studied behavioral psychology. I was also always taken by the cultural diversity of Israel, and after graduation, I started a project for Israeli Arab university students, helping them find work in the Israeli job market.

Saeed Diabat began working for JDC's cross-Israel network of Riyan Arab employment centers in 2017.
Saeed Diabat began working for JDC’s cross-Israel network of Riyan Arab employment centers in 2017.

That’s how I found out about TEVET, the JDC-Israel initiative that works to make life better for unemployed and underemployed Israelis. At the beginning of 2017, I started working for JDC’s cross-Israel network of Riyan Arab employment centers as a knowledge management administrator. My job was to collect data from different areas to see what ideas might actually work to bring the Arab community in Israel and broader Israeli society together.

My community doesn’t necessarily adopt new trends or adapt to new approaches quickly, so we need this mediator in the shape of employment centers to bring opportunities and vocational training into the villages. The Riyan centers bring the Israeli job market directly into Arab villages and communities.

At the end of 2018, I heard about a new project from another TEVET program manager, an initiative designed to help Israeli Arab men and women improve their Hebrew language skills. The premise of “Hebrew As A Second Language” (HAASL) is that better language skills can empower people to find better jobs, improve their income level, and increase representation in sectors and fields of employment where the Arab community in Israel has been historically absent. 

The Arab community in Israel learns Hebrew for almost 10 years, from third to twelfth grade, but it’s somehow not enough. Most of the time, Hebrew teachers in our schools are from our community, and we’ve found that to really learn a language you need to learn it from a native speaker. You also need to practice it, which there’s not always a chance to do in our villages. We find men and women 18 and older who know Hebrew but can’t really speak it. When they start using it in the workforce, they realize they’re not using it correctly and need more practice.

We quickly discovered that, when you work with adults, you can’t use the same formal educational methods used with children. You need new content and new approaches for adults, as well as teachers capable of handling men and women learning both new job skills and a new language. There are many programs for Hebrew language learners, like ulpan, for people who’ve made aliyah, but their content isn’t always suitable for the Arab community in Israel. You need to write content with names the learner can connect to. For example, books for ulpan that use Sandy, James, or Michael may make an Arab student feel a little weird, but when you see Fatima or Ahmed, you can connect. We also have to adjust the places described in the text, too. We can talk about Tel Aviv or Eilat or Rosh HaAyin and it might be fine, but if we’re open to talking about Nazareth, Rahat, or Sakhnin, it’s easier for one of our students. 

HAASL students with their graduation certificates. Better Hebrew language skills can empower people to find better jobs, improve their income level, and increase representation in the workplace.
HAASL students with their graduation certificates. Better Hebrew language skills can empower people to find better jobs, improve their income level, and increase representation in the workplace.

To have a language proficiency sufficient for the job market, you need to reach what we call the third level — at least 500 hours of classes, which could take six to eight months. It’s not easy, and most of the job seekers we meet in our program are still at the first level. When we began working on the program in 2018, we built a proficiency test that every client who arrived at a Riyan employment center could take. It was helpful to use Riyan’s established brand to build trust with our students, and testing for proficiency was innovative, because it allowed us to group our students into classes based on their existing Hebrew skills. In the past, we didn’t have that data.

We have students aged 18 to 65, and 90 percent of our students are women, with almost 60 percent of them below the age of 30. The main thing is that all of our students are looking to improve their quality of life. We meet three or four times a week for six hours a day. The goal is to help them realize what a workday looks like; as they’re improving their Hebrew skills, learning what a job will feel like is a parallel process.

It wasn’t easy to find our teachers. We needed native Hebrew speakers with a professional teaching background but also a familiarity with the Arab community in Israel and an expertise in the job market and its needs and trends. We soon realized we’d need to train our teachers, not from scratch, but in the nuances of the student population they’d be working with. We have about 30 teachers now, but we need more, especially in East Jerusalem.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, HAASL was in almost every Riyan center, with 20 classes of 20 students each. Once COVID-19 struck, our first instinct was to shut our classes down, since the employment centers were closed. Then we looked at the situation more closely and saw an opportunity. We had already been thinking about how to move our classes into a digital space, but it was a large project that required a lot of lead time. COVID-19 showed us we were on the right track.

So what were we supposed to do with the 20 classes already in progress? The full digital version of HAASL wouldn’t be ready until mid-2021. We decided to train our teachers on video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Teams. Initially, we faced some resistance, since our teachers were used to teaching in a classroom with a big whiteboard on the wall, and now we were asking them to do the same thing on a screen 5 percent that size. It was a challenge, but after we trained our professionals, we were glad to hear that they liked this new approach to teaching, with some of them even saying, “That’s it. I’ll continue this way even after the pandemic.”

Saeed and members of a Hebrew as a second language class meet on Zoom. Since COVID-19 struck, Saeed and his team have moved their HAASL classes online. Of the 20 in-person classes, 18 continued. Six months into COVID-19, more than 35 new classes have opened to teach HAASL remotely, with more already planned.
Since COVID-19 struck, Saeed and his team have moved their HAASL classes online. Of the 20 in-person classes, 18 continued. Six months into COVID-19, more than 35 new classes have opened to teach HAASL remotely, with more already planned.

From 20 classes, 18 continued. Through this process, we discovered there’s still a big digital access gap within the Arab community in Israel. For one of our classes, the teacher noticed her students didn’t have computers at home. She looked on the Internet for used computers someone might be willing to donate. She reached out to a small community volunteer project offering to donate 15 computers, organized two volunteers to help with transportation, and brought them from Jerusalem to Shibli, a Bedouin village in northern Israel. It was a great success story, but things like that can only go so far. Two of our participating villages lacked Internet connectivity, and that’s an infrastructure program we can’t quickly find a solution for.

Through my work, I want to build a bridge between Israeli communities so we can build a shared, inclusive, and diverse job market in Israel.

Today, six months into COVID-19, more than 35 new classes have opened to teach HAASL remotely, with more planned for the coming months. Our teachers and students have both started to adjust to this new method of learning Hebrew. The new approach could help us reach even more students as long as we continue developing new teaching materials suitable for distance learning and train our professionals in how to teach remotely.

COVID-19 changed a lot of things for us. At first, we wanted our graduates to seek vocational training for in-demand sectors, like high-tech and finance, and also to pursue higher education that would help them secure better positions, like in management. But now everything’s changing, and we’re realizing that we’ll need to add a session about career planning in uncertain times. It’s still unclear exactly how the pandemic will change the job market.

What is clear is the need for HAASL. Our goal is to close the gap for the Arab community in Israel and build a better and more inclusive society. Breaking down stereotypes and finding ways for the various parts of Israeli society is something I truly believe in. When you can respect and honor someone different than you, you can see the potential and opportunities found in everyone around you.

Through my work, I want to build a bridge between Israeli communities so we can build a shared, inclusive, and diverse job market in Israel. What I’m doing now with HAASL is a continuing step to what I did with Riyan. With JDC’s support, the Arab community in Israel can obtain the skills needed to be proactive in seeking a new career, a better job, or a promotion. I’m proud that my work lets me help my community.

Saeed Diabat is a JDC-TEVET program manager.

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