I am back from Israel, where I spent a full week looking for a job. Yes, I know exactly what I want to do. It is to teach English at a high school in Tel Aviv. Not a permanent job. But, let’s say, it would be work for a year. This is not aliyah. But it is voluntary service. Israeli schools are serviced by an enormous network of people who proffer their time, energy, and brains to a complex and secular system which knows how to use their talents.
I’ve been interviewed at three schools, each of them different from the others. Each of them with an intriguing character, distinctive socio-economic profiles, and multiple challenges. One of them is a high achievers’ institution, with a bent towards music and art but with excellent attainments in science, mathematics, and literature. This high school would actually find it easiest to accommodate me and, in a way, it would also be the easiest one for me to serve. But could I affect any students’ lives? They have pretty rich (and busy) lives already.
Then there is the school in a depressed neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. It goes from K-12 and from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Its profile is not typical, what with children of foreign workers (whose legal status seems always to be in doubt) accounting for 38.5 percent of the student body. More than ten percent of the children are refugees from Darfur and Sudan. These two cohorts are the real Zionists. 21.2 percent are Israeli-born Jews and 16.3 percent are new Israelis, with another sub-group (7.2 percent) immigrants from the former Soviet Union. 6.5 percent are Israeli Arabs. This is an intricate social reality. It is also a grave intellectual challenge. I know an experience in this school would be emotionally rewarding. But would there be enough kids who know enough English for me to teach them how to read Huckleberry Finn,for example? The system of bringing in especially gifted volunteers assures me somewhat. 62 men and women from Unit 8200, a legendarily high intellect division of the Israel Defense Forces sit one-on-one with students for 12 hours a week of their (not army) service and tutor.
The third school, situated in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv, is also served by volunteers. Most of them are scholarship students at the law school of the University of Tel Aviv, the law school that enrolls the highest performers on psycho-metric exams. (Yes, Israel is crazy about these tests, crazy in the very odd sense. It is probably also the most left-wing of all the social science faculties in the country. Poor law students!) Jaffa incorporates several Arab districts (and integrated districts, too, like the one in which I have leased an apartment for my stay). So there is a hefty Arab percentage of the student body, both Christian Arab and Muslim Arab, (and also Armenians who do not want at all to be thought of as Arabs.) Yet these young Arabs probably come from the most “assimilated” families in town, the others preferring to go to Muslim religious schools or to church schools.
(Maybe you have seen the brilliantly grim Israeli movie, Ajami, a portrait of life in a Jaffa neighborhood, reviewed here by Stanley Kauffmann.)
Of course, there are many Jewish students in the high school, both Israeli-born and immigrants. Even together with the others, it is not a melting pot. In fact, the school makes sure to allow origins to show and shine. This high school is another paradigm, the third in my search. There are many other paradigms, but I want to live in Tel Aviv, the first Zionist city, as lively a place, many people tell me, as Barcelona. On the other hand, I’m usually in bed by midnight.