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איילה באוגנדה מלמדת את השפה העברית

On Culture, Judaism and the Hebrew Language

Ayala Shrell-Fox*

Over the last two years, since completing my mandatory military service in the IDF, I have been teaching Hebrew in different communities around the world. I flew as a shlicha of the Jewish Agency and the army to Camp Ramah in Nyack, New York, where I was a counselor in the Sha’ar Hebrew immersion program, in which counselors speak exclusively in Hebrew with their campers in order to teach them spoken Hebrew. This was the beginning of my interest in the field of language development. I learned that language is much more than just words. I came to understand that body language and facial expressions are as valuable as the words I say, and I saw the wonders of informal education also in the field of language learning.

Following this empowering experience at summer camp, I decided to stay in New York and work for a year. I worked as an assistant to a first-grade teacher at the SAR Academy, a Jewish school in Riverdale, New York. During my time at the school, I was exposed to formal language education. I was privileged to work with a teacher who had 30 years of experience in the field. She encouraged me and gave me amazing educational tools to provide children with second language skills.

This past year, since returning to Israel, I volunteered at the Jerusalem African Community Center (JACC), as a Hebrew teacher for asylum seekers from African countries. This was an incredibly meaningful and challenging experience. Here I learned that language is much more than just words, body language and facial expressions. Language is also comprised of culture, and influenced by that culture. I came to understand that language gaps are not only connected to gaps in vocabulary but also cultural gaps. In one culture, a body movement or facial expression sends a different message than it does in another language. 

Teaching Hebrew in Uganda

Together, these experiences brought me to today, but nothing could have prepared me for what I am doing now. I am now volunteering as a Hebrew teacher and representative of Noam Olami (the international Conservative/Masorti youth organization) in the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. I teach spoken Hebrew in a formal setting to the adults, and in an informal setting to the children.  As a representative of Noam Olami, I am introducing informal educational programs to the youth through values of Conservative Judaism. I hope that a branch of Noam will open here in Uganda. Despite the cultural differences between me and the community, I’ve found many common threads. Here in Uganda I am living in a Conservative Jewish community, much like the home I grew up in. In addition to the similarities in religious customs, one of the most commonly spoken language here is English, which I also speak at home.

But even with these similarities, the culture is so different that even when the linguistic culture is the same, the cultural language is very far from my own. 

My experiences here are strengthening the knowledge I acquired these past two years in education and teaching language and are helping to clarify for me the meaning of language – how it is influenced by culture and how it impacts on culture. Providing this community with the Hebrew language strengthens their connection to Judaism and Israel. I am privileged to be a part of their developing knowledge about Israel and the Hebrew language. I am learning a huge amount from this shlichut – about culture, language, education, Judaism and community. I’m proud to play a meaningful part in the life of this Jewish community.


*Ayala grew up in Jerusalem and graduated from the second class of the Hannaton Mechina in 2014


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