Hungary – Wednesday, April 25, 2018
During the school day our home base is in the school library. Ordinarily the teacher we are paired with is supposed to come to the library and walk us to our class since the school is 4 stories and a basement. But today was the third teaching day of our second year so we all know the building by now. Typically a teacher from Scheiber Sandor would walk in to the library, look around and ask, “Where’s Lisa?” And we would say, “Oh, she left for class already.” So today when I left the library, walked down the stairs, went into the room and started teaching right after the passing bell, without a Scheiber Sandor teacher, it felt normal. We feel like part of the faculty.
During my grade 13 class this morning I led the students through an activity in which they write about a possession that has special significance for them. One student wrote about an ash tray and another wrote his hookah. One of the biggest cultural differences between America and Hungary for me is the attitude toward smoking here, which is clearly more relaxed. Yesterday, after school, I stood on the steps and said good bye to the students while waiting for the taxi to take me back to the hotel. As I stood there, the older students in the school would walk down the steps, say good bye to me and take their lighters and cigarettes out of their pockets. Then they would sit down across the street from the school and smoke while waiting for their friends. I reflected at that moment how easy it is to take for granted the lives that have been saved in the United States by years of public health advertising campaigns about smoking.
When the Beth Tfiloh students arrived the tone changed immediately. Within minutes it seemed like the BT and the Hungarian students were old friends. They instantly bonded over the universal teenage language of basketball, music and smart phones.
Two quick stories illustrate the immediate unity of the students. In the afternoon we visited the Dohany Synagogue. While there Rabbi Soskil suggested we daven mincha and explained to the Hungarian students that one of the BT students is saying Kaddish and so while davening mincha was not obligatory, he would appreciate it if people helped make a minyan. Not one student left. All the students stood there and answered Eitan’s Kaddish.
Later after dinner Rabbi Soskil announced that we would say the first paragraph of bentching out loud and people could finish quietly to themselves if they wanted to do so. All the students participated in bentching. They all knew the words and the tune–and the ones who had energy left even did hand motions. It was a reminder that Judaism can connect teenagers across different continents and different languages.
Hungary – Tuesday, April 24, 2018
In continuation with the theme of citizenship that my co-teacher Zsolt and I brainstormed about before I came here to teach, today I worked with my grade 13 class on a ditto that I use when I end my unit on George Orwell’s novel 1984.
In the ditto the students are posed roughly 15 different scenarios and then asked whether that scenario is an invasion of privacy or whether society has a right to know. For example, does a high school have the right to administer random drug testing of its students. Is that an invasion of the student’s privacy or in the best interest of the school.
Usually when I teach this lesson with a class of 20 students we run through it in 30 minutes. Today with a group of 10 students it took twice that amount of time. After generations of fascist and communist rule, combined with a current government that is edging away from democracy, the students are starved to discuss the balance between individual freedoms and social order and security. These decisions have been out of the hands for so long–but clearly not far from their hearts and minds.
Budapest-Monday, April 23, 2018
I landed in Budapest at close to 11 in the morning on Monday, April 23 and about one and half hours later, fueled by only one and half hours of plane sleep, I was back in the Scheiber Sandor school teaching a group of grade 13 students.
I recognized several faces from last year and they immediately recognized me. Based on email exchanges that I had with my co-teacher Zsolt I focused this year on citizenship, largely in response to the political climate in Hungary right now. With that in mind, I preceded to read and discuss with them an article by Peter Singer that questions what responsibilities the citizen has to society. In short, what makes a good citizen.
After a break for lunch, the Beth Tfiloh teachers gave seminars on how democracy functions in America. I was assigned to teach about the system of checks and balances. Three groups of students rotated between three thirty minute sessions, so in the end I taught about America’s three branches of government for the same amount of time I had slept on the plane.
After the last presentation, a student named Martin approached me. He told me that he remembered a lesson that I taught him last year about the responsibilities of government. I use this particular lesson to start my unit on George Orwell’s novel 1984. Martin told me that he enjoyed the lesson so much that he had designed a video game based on it, though it wasn’t nice enough yet to share it with me. And that made the entire trip worthwhile, even with only an hour and half hours worth of plane sleep.
Friday, February 17, 2017
This morning we visited the Hungary Jewish Museum, which is in the process of extensive renovation. The museum wanted us, as typical tourists and as educators, to serve as a focus group and give them feedback regarding an app that is in development. When the museum finishes renovating, visitors will be able to download the app on their phones and walk around both the museum and the famous Dohany Synagogue, which is next door, and receive information about both sites. They wanted us to test the app in its present format and give them feedback so that they can improve it before launching it for the public.
A young woman named Mihaela Groza joined us as part of our focus group. Originally from a small town in Romania, Mihaela is now in graduate school at the Central Eastern University in Budapest studying medieval Jewish history. Mihaela told me about the extensive Jewish community in Romania before the Holocaust. Unfortunately now there is only one synagogue in Bucharest and in the town she grew up in there are only 18 Jews.
After serving as a focus group for the Hungary Jewish Museum, we received a formal tour of the Dohany Synagogue from a young man named Greg. Following the tour, Greg shared his remarkable story with us. Greg did not even know he was Jewish until he was 12 years old, when his grandmother told him he has Jewish after he heard an anti-Semitic remark. After his grandmother died, Greg’s mother started lighting Shabbos candles, something which no one in his family had done in decades. In an effort to assimilate and hide the family’s Judaism under the communists’ rule, Greg’s great-grandfather had burned any identification papers the family
Thursday, February 16, 2017
The Scheiber Sandor school is closed today and tomorrow, so we dedicated our day to learning about the Budapest Jewish community. After spending three days teaching students, many of whom want to leave their country, today was inspirational.
In the afternoon, we visited the Teleki Ter Shteibel. In this neighborhood of Budapest, there used to be 50 shteibels. But the Holocaust and decades of communism and assimilation have reduced that number to 1—the Teleki Ter Shteibel.
About 10 years ago the building was falling apart and its tiny congregation aging. The neighborhood was about to lose its last shteibel and Jewish life in this once thriving Jewish community disappear. Then two young men, brothers, appeared and fell in love with the shul. They dedicated hours of their energy and resources to the shul. Now it is a small, but young and vibrant shteibel that has a rabbi, and services every Friday night, Shabbos morning and for all the holidays. Next month the rabbi’s twin sons will celebrate their bar mitzvahs there.
One of the brothers, Gabor, is a photographer. Before we left, he showed me a book that they self-published about the history of the Teleki Ter Shteibel and its neighborhood. They could only afford to publish two copies of the book—one in Hungarian and one in English. The book contains archival photographs of the Teleki Ter Shteibel and the neighborhood from throughout the twentieth-century, as well as photographs of the shul that Gabor has taken in the last decade.
The most breathtaking photographs were those that Gabor took when he first committed himself to renovating the shteibel. In the pictures, the shul looks like you would imagine a bombed out building. Several other photographs show the small band of volunteers who labored to rebuild the shteibel and provide a functioning house of worship for the neighborhood. Seeing the before pictures and standing in the after results jumpstarted my faith in humanity. These brothers could have let the shul die. 49 other shteibels in the community had already died. They could have walked away, but they refused to do so.
That evening we had dinner with Linda Vero-Ben, an author of Jewish children’s books and a leader of the Frankel shul community in Budapest, of which her husband is the rabbi. She explained that because girls in Budapest do not have bat mitzvahs, her daughter did not want to have one. So she gathered her daughter and a small group of her friends and they studied together every Sunday for year. Then, during the summer, she took all the girls to Camp Szarvas, and the girls had a group bat mitzvah. Out of that group, a BBYO chapter has developed with 45 girls. Like Gabor and his brother, Linda could have walked away, but she refused to do so.
Located in Hungary, Camp Szarvas is a story itself. Established in 1990, Camp Szarvas is dedicated to giving Jewish children in Central and Eastern Europe the Jewish summer camp experience that the Jewish children in North American take for granted. Since its beginning more than 25,000 children have attended Camp Szarvas. The founders of Camp Szarvas could have walked away, but they refused to do so.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
I am 48 years old and I have never overslept and been late for work—until today.
We are supposed to meet in the lobby at 7:45 to board the bus to take us to the Scheiber Sandor School. At 7:47 my phone rang. Was I coming down? The bus was waiting for me. I had forgotten to set my alarm.
The bus went ahead. I was showered, dressed and in the lobby in 15 minutes. I took a taxi to the school and walked into my class 15 minutes late. In over two decades of teaching I have never walked into a class 15 minutes late.
When I walked into the classroom Zsolt, my co-teacher, was standing at the front of the classroom, taking the students through one of my lessons. As he handed me the board marker he whispered in my ear, “I was just doing what I’ve seen you do.” In an instant, my self-loathing vanished.
Then Zsolt asked if he could observe another teacher in Beth Tfiloh’s group. Of course I said yes. He left and I gathered myself. I had this particular class of year 7 students for two periods in a row yesterday afternoon. This morning I had them again for two periods in a row. After 4 periods of English class with them in less than 24 hours, they felt like my students. They were even comfortable enough with me to talk when they should have been quiet. I was no longer a visiting teacher from America. I was their English teacher.
At lunch in the cafeteria I saw Bendagouz, the year 7 student who Zsolt told me was in danger of being expelled.
“Bendagouz,” I said. “I blogged about you yesterday.”
“Really? What did you say?” he asked.
“I wrote about what a good job you did in my class yesterday.” Bendagouz smiled at me.
One moment in particular from yesterday keeps coming back to me. I took one group of year 7 students through an activity that culminated with them writing a poem. Three out of the 8 students chose to write a poem about how badly they want to leave Hungary and go to America. In my year 12 class today, I asked them if they felt that 1/3 of the students in the school want to leave Hungary and go to America. All the students affirmed this definitively. I cannot imagine even one student in my classes at Beth Tfiloh writing a poem about how badly he wants to leave America—let alone 1/3.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
This morning at 8:15 I taught the same year 7 students that I taught yesterday afternoon for two periods. The difference was night and day. A few minutes before class started, I stood outside the room. As the students filed in about half the class smiled and said, “Hi, David.” I had managed to remember about half their names. They smiled at me and their body language was more welcoming. Clearly we were not strangers anymore.
I led them through a writing activity in which the students create a graph with x and y axes. On the y axis the kids plot out +5 and -5. On the x axis the students plot out how many years old they are. Then they plot each year in their lives. A grandparent died—that year was a -5. You learned to ride a bike—that year was a +3. After that, the students write a short phrase next to each event on the graph to note it. Lastly, they choose one event on the graph and write about it. Because their English skills are still rudimentary, I only asked them to write 5 sentences about the event they selected.
After they had time to compose, everyone shared what they wrote. Unlike yesterday with this group, no one hesitated. Everyone read enthusiastically. Joel wrote about the death of his pet rabbit and his new pet rabbit. Anna wrote about the going to summer camp for the first time and learning about photography there.
One student’s participation was particularly noteworthy. Yesterday Bendagouz’s body language told me, “I dare you to teach me anything.” Today, though, he participated nicely. As left he class, I purposely thanked Bendagouz for participating so well. After all the students had left, I told my co-teacher Zsolt that Benadgouz did such a nice job today. He told me that Bendagouz is having a difficult time at the Scheiber Sandor School and is in danger of being expelled.
One difference between the students at Beth Tfiloh and the students at Scheiber Sandor impacted me today. The students at Beth Tfiloh are incredibly polite. At the end of each class, nearly all the students say thank you as they leave the room. All teachers at Beth Tfiloh have that experience—not just me. Visiting or new teachers to Beth Tfiloh are amazed at that quality in our students. The ironic downside of their politeness, though, is that you never know when they are saying thank you out of habit or when they mean it. They say thank you all the time.
Today, though, I received a heartfelt thank you. I taught a year 11 English class. I decided that since I teach George Orwell’s 1984 to my 11th grade students at Beth Tfiloh I would teach these year 11 students my opening day 1984 lesson. I had no idea if these students would find it too difficult or not, but I thought that the issues that Orwell raises in the text are universal. I thought the class went well. The students seemed to enjoy it. At the end of class, though, I received proof. One boy, Marci, hung back as the students left. He obviously wanted to speak with me after everyone had gone. When the coast was clear, he came over to me. “Thank you,” he said. “That was really interesting.” Later, during lunch in the cafeteria, he saw me and called me over. He took me through the cafeteria line, explained what everything was, and gave me tips about what to eat and what to avoid. What a difference the second day makes.
Monday Day 2
I have not been so nervous walking into a classroom to teach since my first day at Beth Tfiloh. I have taught at Beth Tfiloh for over 20 years and I have taught every grade in the high school and every level in the high school, but walking into my year 11 class this morning, I felt like a first year teacher on his first day of school.
I certainly a responsibility to represent Beth Tfiloh well. I also had no idea what their level of English would be. And the success of my lesson hinged on their English, since I wanted them to practice writing in English. However, once I started speaking, my nerves calmed down and it was like being at Beth Tfiloh. I used the same reassuring words to elicit their responses. I gave them the same encouraging praises to reward their efforts.
In my year 11 class, I introduced them to an essay that I often have my students write. The assignment is called a “This I Believe” essay. It comes from a long-running radio series. For this essay, the students define a core belief that anchors their lives in 250-350 words. Students have written on “I believe in kindness” or “I believe in perseverance.” Today we did several brainstorming activities to prepare the students to write. I teach this same group on Wednesday and I hope to do build on what we did today by having them do some in-class writing about their beliefs. My co-teacher here, Zsolt Martha, thinks this is a good idea because he feels they do not practice writing in English enough.
I also taught two year 7 classes today. It actually was the same group of students twice, once before lunch and once after lunch. Their English was obviously more limited than the year 11 students. They could understand me and speak with me very well. But they were reluctant to write. I only found out right before the lesson that year 7 is when they formally and intensively begin to study English. For the first period, we wrote a class poem. I give each child an index card and a writing prompt and the students have to complete the writing prompt with a short phrase. Then the students take the index cards and move them around like puzzle pieces to form lines of a poem. At Beth Tfiloh the activity always works really well. It was certainly neat to see and hear the students having the same discussions about grouping similar ideas and words, making smooth transitions between ideas and thinking about how to introduce and close their thoughts that the students at Beth Tfiloh do when I use this activity. In my second meeting with this group, I had them draw pictures of their rooms, directing them to make their pictures more and more detailed. Then they chose one special item in their room and wrote a short paragraph about why it was special to them. One reluctant English speaker, whose name I cannot spell, wrote about his autograph collection of YouTubers. Some teenage activities are universal.
I did have a ringer in this class. A girl named Sara. She was born in Ireland and lived there until she was 11. Her father is Irish and her mother is Hungarian. When her family left Ireland and moved to Hungary, her friends gave her a photo album. Sara wrote that she would cry if anything happened to it. I am so thankful that Sara was in my class. If she had not been there, I would have been sweating even more than I was.
There are some parts of the Scheiber Sandor School that my students at Beth Tfiloh would like. There is no dress code. There is very little davening. There are 10-15 minutes between classes. They take few Judaic classes. The 11th grade student who gave me a tour of the school only takes one 45 minute Judaics class period—the entire week. But the students at Beth Tfiloh would not like the 25 minute lunch period or the fact that they have no extra-curricular activities. Zsolt was very interested in learning about Beth Tfiloh’s literary magazine. When the students heard how many hours the students at Beth Tfiloh stay after school to participate in sports or theater, they asked, “When do they sleep?” I responded, “I often wonder the same thing.”
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Leaving the airport in Budapest what struck me immediately was the impact of globalization. Within minutes of pulling out of the airport parking lot, I saw signs for Burger King, MacDonald’s, the Hard Rock Café and Chevron. I could have been in the outskirts of any major airport in the United States. But, of course, I was not. My driver, Tibor, explained to me that because it is difficult to earn a living here, Hungary is having a problem retaining its young people. In fact, he explained, the city with the second largest Hungarian population, after Budapest, is London. The airport in Budapest is named after composer Franz Liszt. So as I settled into my hotel room and checked my lesson plans for my first day of teaching at the Scheiber Sandor School I pulled up Liszt on YouTube and let the music help me relax and focus.