Tag Archives: Nishmat

Tutoring Ethiopian Students

(Although all names in this Blog are common girls’ names in the Ethiopian community, they are not the students’ actual names, but were changed to protect their anonymity)

Ethiopian students in the Ma'ayan program at Midreshet Nishmat, Jerusalem, and the English tutors at the Chanukah party, December 2018
Ethiopian students in the Ma’ayan program at Midreshet Nishmat, Jerusalem, and the English tutors at the Chanukah party, December 2018

I tink he will not be happy.” Yerus reads slowly and carefully.

As for most Israelis, the English “th” eludes her. I correct her pronunciation. “Think.”

She tries again. T-hink.”

“Not quite.” I stick my tongue out between my teeth. “Th…Think.”

She tries to imitate me. “Sth-ink.”

“Better. Try again. THink.”


“Perfect!” I cry, smiling broadly.

She and Mazal, her learning partner, give each other high fives. When Mazal manages the “th” correctly on her second try, they exchange another high five.

The Ma’ayan program for Ethiopian Women

Yerus and Mazal are two of the students I have tutored in English at Midreshet Nishmat, in Jerusalem.  Both girls were participants in Ma’ayan, a special program for young Ethiopian women. Every year, the program admits about 15 students who have graduated high school, passing the required number of bogrut exams. They have also completed national service or service in the IDF. All come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and large families (generally 7-13 family members). 

The school provides them with room and board, educational counseling, guidance in managing time and finances, as well as a financial stipend. The educational arm of Ma’ayan includes classes in Limudei Kodesh (Bible, Jewish religion, ethics). The students receive tutoring in English, mathematics, and computer skills. They also have a special class to prepare them for the dreaded Psychometrics test, the Israeli equivalent of College Boards. The teachers and staff of Ma’ayan, under the direction of Dr. Estie Barel, are professionals. All the tutors are all volunteers. Those of us who tutor English are native speakers, educated primarily in English-speaking countries.

My students

All the students I have worked with are eager to learn, and they work hard to do so. If I forget to give them an assignment for the next week, they ask for homework. They smile easily and often, especially when they master something they have had difficulty with. Because of centuries of deprivation, most of them are short and slender. In a group of Ethiopian women, at 5 feet 3 inches I am often the tallest person.

I am now completing my sixth year tutoring English at Nishmat. This year I have three students: Felagush, Anguach, and Noga, who is thinking of becoming a nurse. I sit with Noga, discussing parts of the human body. Although she took biology in high school, as an Israeli she learned it all in Hebrew. But in nursing school she will need to know the vocabulary in English as well. The lectures will, of course, be in Hebrew, but the textbooks are in English.

I point to something in the middle of the chest of my crudely drawn person. “Do you know what this is?”

She answers confidently. “לב.”

I write “h-e-a-r-t” next to an arrow pointing to the organ in question.


“It’s pronounced ‘hart,” I say.

“But that doesn’t make sense!”

I write three words on another piece of paper: ear, hear, heart. After reading them out loud, I tell her I agree it doesn’t make sense. English spelling often doesn’t. She stops complaining when I tell her my son had the same problem with “heart” when he was learning to read.

Program history

Rabbanit Chana Henkin
Rabbanit Chana Henkin

Rabbanit Chana Henkin founded Midreshet Nishmat with her husband Rabbi Yehuda Henkin in 1990. Their first class consisted of two American students in a room she describes as being about the size of “a closet.” The school grew rapidly. They added a program for young Israeli women to the program for foreign students.

Ten years later, the Rabbanit decided they needed to do more. “We were bringing a large aliyah of Ethiopians to the country, but as a society we were not doing enough to help them.” She asked herself what she could do about it. Her answer was to educate the women so they can integrate into mainstream Israeli society. The ultimate goal of the program is to create Ethiopian leaders who are role models for other girls in their community in Israel.

Why this program is needed

In the United States, children who are the first in their families to attend college often have problems navigating the system. Among the Ethiopians in Israel, the current younger generation is the first to attend, not only college, but also high school. Even today, twenty years after the major Ethiopian aliyah started, most of the older generation lack high school education. As a result, about 90% of Ethiopians remain employed as house cleaners and janitors.

That is changing as people in their 40’s have started attending continuing education courses. They are studying for the bogrut exams to earn high school diplomas. A few members of the Ethiopian community have advanced farther than the majority. Israel now has Ethiopian lawyers, judges, army officers, nurses, and Knesset members. The economic situation of the community is slowly changing.

Nishmat’s program is an integral part of that change. There is no doubt that it works. More than 90% of its students attend college or university after completing the one-year program. Students who do not succeed in the program are not abandoned at the end of their year. One of my students, who had made aliyah only a few years earlier, did poorly on her Psychometrics exam. She received additional tutoring for a year while she worked. She now attends Efrata College, and plans to teach when she graduates.

Ma’ayan hemshech — continuation program

Following completion of the Ma’ayan program, some students continue in Ma’ayan Hemshech, which supports them in college or university. Students in this continuation program are provided with housing, a stipend, and any needed tutoring. I have tutored several Ethiopian students in English while they attended Machon Tal, a small women’s college near my house. Dr. Barel also has called on my professional skills to help several nursing students. I’ve worked on anatomy and physiology with one student, pulling information out of some back corner of my brain. Several more advanced students needed help with literature searches and analyzing research.

All this attention works—more than 90% of Ma’ayan participants graduate college or university.

Ma’ayan outcomes

My own contribution has achieved a mixed measure of success. At the end of the year, the young women read English with more proficiency and their vocabularies are larger. They speak with more confidence. But pronunciation and spelling? I don’t seem to have mastered the art of teaching those. Last year Yerus and Mazal gave me a hand washing cup on which they had written “Tank you.”

Graduates of the Ma’ayan program have become teachers, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, lawyers. One is attending medical school. Amawayesh, who I worked with in my first year as a tutor, got married while a student at Herzog College. She now has a lovely baby. Since graduation, she has taught language at a religious high school in Beit Shemesh. In addition, she coordinates the leadership program for high school girls.

Riste, a nursing student I taught, passed her final English test. B’H she will graduate Shaare Zedek Nursing School this summer. She will join several hundred other young Ethiopians  who have been helped by Nishmat to move from the social margins to the mainstream of Israeli society.

To see Ma’ayan in action , including interviews with some students, click on this link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8beC1zBdPN0

Responding to Murder

The last photo of Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Na'ama with their sons
The last photo of Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Na’ama with their sons

Near the end of the 2014 school year three boys–Naftali Fraenkal, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach–were kidnapped. They were taken on their way home from studying in yeshivas and they totally disappeared. Aside from the recording of phone call to emergency services, we heard nothing. The entire country prayed and said Tehillim (Psalms) for them. The IDF, police, border police, and volunteers searched for them. For 18 long days, nothing.

Nishmat, the girls’ seminary where Naftali’s mother taught, held a public recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) for recovery and return of the three boys. Following the recitation of Psalms, some of the students and faculty gathered and began to sing, led by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, dean of the school. I was part of the group, there because I am a volunteer English tutor in the college prep program for Ethiopian girls.

About twenty of us stood in a circle, our arms around each others’ shoulders, singing, begging G-d to bring the boys home, begging Him for mercy. Rabbanit Henkin smiled as she encouraged us to sing. It was a sad smile, one that radiated warmth and concern. As the words of one prayer died, she started another one.

And then she began singing words from Avinu Malkenu. Avinu Malkenu, our Father, our King. It is a long prayer asking G-d for all sorts of things: to remove the plague from our people, to keep the sword from us, to destroy the plans of our enemies, to remember us for life. It seems to go on for forever, covering more than two pages in most prayer books. Near the end we sing, “May this hour be an hour of mercy and a time of favor before You.” The tune is slow. Like many prayers, it is set in a minor key, and sounds sad, forlorn. I closed my eyes as I sang. We sang it over and over, our arms around each other, crying in hope for the lives of three missing boys. When I opened my eyes, I saw Rabbanit Henkin, her eyes sad above her soft smile.

About a week later, the boys were found, buried in a shallow grave.

At Simchat Torah services this week, the men started singing that line from Avinu Malkenu while parading and dancing with the Torah scrolls. The tune has become enmeshed in my memory with the names of the three boys who had been killed before any of us knew they had been kidnapped.

The tune is also enmeshed with the vision of Rabbanit Henkin’s sad smile. Rabbanit Henkin, who today is mourning her own son. Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama were killed by Arabs last week while driving home from Elon Moreh to Neria with their four sons. The boys, aged four months to nine years, were unharmed. The attack was cut short when one of the murderers accidently shot one of his colleagues.          

What do you say to the parent of a child who has been murdered?

It doesn’t matter if the child is in his teens, as Naftali, Gil-Ad, and Eyal were, or in his 30s as Rav Henkin was. He is still a child to his parents.

Words fail us when confronted with such a tragedy. We fall back on customary polite phrases. “I’m sorry for your loss.” “May their memory be a blessing.” We say what tradition stipulates: “May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

We will always be reminded that they died in an act of violence. When referring to someone who has died, we add zichrono l’bracha to their name, may his memory be a blessing. But Eitam and Naama Henkin will always be remembered with the phrase Hashem y’nakem damam, May G-d avenge their blood.

We don’t say, the IDF will avenge their death. We don’t form posses and vigilante groups and ride through the country burning and murdering as payback. That’s not the Jewish way.  As Rabbanit Chana Henkin said in an interview with Arutz 7, “We do not demand revenge but that leadership moves to provide security for residents.” (Her whole interview is here)

Some young men have started to take vengeance for Arab violence into their own hands. People have performed “price tag” attacks on Arab cars and churches. Some have even invaded Arab towns and burned houses. We do not celebrate such violence. Our leaders do not praise them for these acts. The Prime Minister and other members of the government severely criticize these actions. The police search for the perpetrators. Several of those who engage in such activities have been put in indefinite detention.  

When news of the Henkin murders reached Palestinian cities, the residents celebrated by firing their guns in the air and setting off fireworks. The killers were praised as “heroic.” The “heroes” had checked that the road was clear of police, military, and other vehicles. They had stopped the car by firing at it with a rifle. They had killed the adults in the front seat by firing at them with pistols multiple times at close range. According to police reports, after the murderers were arrested they said they would have killed the children as well, but one of them dropped his gun upon being shot by his friend, and they left the scene.

How much courage does it take to shoot a car with a rifle? How much courage does it take to repeatedly shoot critically injured people? How much courage does it take to shoot small children buckled into safety seats?

The people I take as my heroes are those who will raise the orphans, trying to help them grow normally despite having witnessed their parents shot. My heroes are those who continue to live their lives without resorting to violence themselves.

The Israeli response is to try to live normally in the face of terror. To live without losing our own humanity. To rebuild what has been destroyed. To educate our children without hatred.

To live our lives as testimony to the lives that were cut short in the last week.

May G-d avenge their blood.