Arab women in Jerusalem study Hebrew for a better future

Almost a decade ago, a group of women from the Arab neighborhood of Isawiya in Jerusalem sought a program to study Hebrew. They couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up inviting two students from the nearby Hebrew University to teach them.

They enjoyed their studies so much that a year later they sought to bring all their friends, relatives and neighbors on board.

This is how the “Women Speaking Hebrew” program began. Fast forward a few years, and it’s now under the umbrella of the non-profit organization Lissan (Arabic for “language” or “tongue”) which promotes gender equality and social equality in Jerusalem.

Talia Vekshtein, CEO of Nissan. Photo courtesy of Nissan

“Hebrew is an absolutely vital need in East Jerusalem,” says Nissan CEO Talia Vekshtein. “Jerusalem is a city whose institutes and public bodies operate in Hebrew. To get any service, to speak with doctors in the hospital, to understand letters from the town hall and to move around confidently and independently, you need to know the language.

Vekshtein notes that 64% of women in East Jerusalem do not speak Hebrew, compared to only 12% of men. “It makes them dependent on their partners to carry out basic actions,” she says.

Unlike the rest of the country, Hebrew was traditionally not included in the school curriculum in East Jerusalem. Recent years have seen an increase in Hebrew lessons both in schools and by private tutors, but the standard is not always excellent and private lessons are expensive, especially for one of the poorest communities. of Israel.

To empower these women and help them gain independence, Nissan organizes several language courses for women, makes information on issues such as national health and social security rights more accessible, and offers research-oriented courses. employment.

Registration fees are nominal and are waived when they cannot be paid.

Lisan’s women-only Hebrew lessons make it comfortable and appropriate for all participants. Photo courtesy of Nissan

learn from each other

The Women Speaking Hebrew program is now made up of 40 volunteer teachers, eight coordinators and 400 students, ranging in level from beginner to advanced.

Hebrew student Nasra Dahdal. Photo courtesy of Nasra Dahdal

Nasra Dahdal from the Shuafat neighborhood tells ISRAEL21c that she has wanted to learn Hebrew for some time. As an Arabic teacher and former employee of Bethlehem University, she hasn’t met many Hebrew-speaking Israelis.

“To know a person, you have to learn their language. Without talking to each other, you can’t get to know each other, so I thought it would be nice to join in and learn,” she says.

A few months into the program, she is enjoying the teaching and the level, and as a retiree, she has plenty of time to focus on her studies.

“In three months, I read and write very well, although I still have problems with [differentiating between the Hebrew letters] kof and kaf. But I train. I am a teacher myself and I know how to study,” she says.

“It’s a very, very good course for me. I like it and have fun with teachers, play with learning, learn some songs – children’s songs, but [it makes] you feel young,” she laughs. “I say no matter how old you are, you have to live on and keep going. If not for you, then for your children. If you educate your children, you open a window for them. Without the tongue, you cannot move. It’s very difficult.”

Some 400 students are enrolled in Nissan classes, taught by 40 volunteer teachers. Photo courtesy of Nissan

Yet the course also has practical benefits for Dahdal herself.

“You receive a document from the bank, from the post office, from different places and you have to find someone to translate. Of course I do Google Translate, but it’s not really accurate for official documents like taxes, bank statements, HMO statements,” she notes. “Everything is in Hebrew. Even when they say on the phone “Press 1 for Arabic”, you find that the recorder tells you a lot of things in Hebrew. »

Less alienating

Nissan is supported by philanthropic funds and private donors. The Hebrew University provides the program with classrooms and gives credit points to students who volunteer as teachers.

Art history student and pedagogical coordinator Lissan Avital Ende. Photo courtesy of Avital Ende

One of these students is Avital Ende, who is working on her master’s degree in art history. Last year she volunteered as a teacher and this year she is a pedagogical coordinator.

As Ende explains, even teaching Hebrew at the beginner level has a huge impact on students.

“It’s not as if they’ve mastered the language perfectly, found a job or integrated completely. And yet I think even at the most basic level – going to the mall and being able to ask where Zara is, or getting on the bus and being able to ask where to get off, or going to the National Insurance offices or the local HMO , and for the language around you to be less alienating – I think that’s important,” she says.

Lisan Hebrew courses start at the beginner level and are employment oriented. Photo courtesy of Nissan

“I am from Jerusalem myself, and I think it is very useful to bring together [people from] different parts of the city. For me, it is also an opportunity to meet this large part of which there is a great detachment, ”she adds.

Ende is also committed to learning Arabic.

Women’s empowerment

For field coordinator Munira ‘Abd al-Hadi, Arabic is far from foreign.

Originally from the Arab town of Iksal in northern Israel, she now studies chemistry at Hebrew University and works as an undergraduate and psychometrics teacher alongside her position at Nissan.

Munira ‘Abd al-Hadi, chemistry student and Lissan field coordinator. Photo courtesy of Munira ‘Abd al-Hadi

She points out that learning Hebrew empowers women and that their studies can have a huge impact on their environment.

“We see the importance of empowering women and how women are a very important part of Arab society because they form the basis of the household. Most of the work inside the house is done by women, since they raise and educate the children. We want to promote women and empower them, but also give them the opportunity to go to work,” she explains.

The most important thing she wants Lisan students to gain, she says, is the confidence to know “that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals. They are worth no less than anyone else in Jerusalem. Whether they are just studying or working, this empowerment is the most important thing for them and their families.

Nissan CEO Vekshtein agrees.

“Our goal is for every woman in East Jerusalem to have the freedom and independence to take charge of her life, exercise her rights and have access to the rights and resources she deserves,” she said.

She is happy to organize Hebrew lessons in community centers in East Jerusalem, also for men, in collaboration with the town hall; continuing education courses for Hebrew teachers; and resume Arabic language classes for medical teams that were interrupted during Covid. A pilot project is also underway to teach Hebrew to Bedouin women in the Negev desert.

“We aspire to expand into more projects and reach more women and audiences who need our services,” concludes Vekshtein.

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