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

“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 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