Halaine Steinberg – English

Budapest2 Blog#5

“Shabbat Shalom to Julia! . . . . Shabbat Shalom to Zita! . . . .  Shabbat Shalom to Abel! . . . .  Sha Sha Shabbat Shalom!”

The Shabbat song, incorporating the names of Scheibor Sandor and Beth Tfiloh students rang out in the dining room of the Leaanyfalu Camp, where the group ushered in Shabbat at what, for many of the SSG students, was their first Shabbaton and, for some, their first Shabbat observance.  And while Beth Tfiloh hosts four Shabbatonim for our students each school year, the one in Budapest was my first as well, so I had not formed expectations for this culminating experience of our trip, other than the hope that the students would find friendship and meaning in their shared experience.

The SSG and BT students converged on the campsite Friday afternoon having already selected their cabin mates for the weekend, and their growing comfort level with one another showed as they swam, played ball and explored the grounds together.  Later, in Shul, dressed in wide array of Shabbat finery, some of them became leaders in the service and all participated with a quiet dignity, respecting the peacefulness and beauty of Shabbat.

While I was a novice to the Shabbaton, I am no stranger to the meaning and importance of prayer in a Jewish Day School, and am, in fact, an alternative davening (prayer) leader for a group of 11th grade girls at BT, one of whom was present on our trip.  So when Rabbi Soskil announced during Shabbat services on Saturday morning that those who would like to move to an alternative davening group on the front patio, I was ready to receive them.  Here I saw a microcosm of what I had observed thus far on the trip: students, little by little, widening their comfort zone, shedding the protective cloak of silence, and opening up to the group about this religious/cultural/social/academic experience.  One of our Budapest students summed up what others may have been feeling when she tearfully and poignantly revealed that sharing feelings did not come as easily to some of the Hungarians as it seemed to do for the Americans, and I was so proud of this otherwise quiet, somewhat reticent, young woman for giving words to what others, too, may have felt.

Later, after an evening service that included inspiring personal stories from Rabbi Soskil and David Green, energy-infused songs, and a moonlit outdoor Havdalah service, our now fully bonded teenagers rotated through activities included cooking Palacsinta (Hungarian crepes) filled with creamy sweet cheese, jelly or Nutella, making S’mores in front of an open fire pit, or – my personal favorite – cutting loose at a rollicking dance party.  As one big cohesive group, they laughed, danced, ate, and exchanged inside jokes and funny stories.

Because we planned to roll out of Leaanyfalu by 8:30 a.m. Sunday for the Americans to go to the airport and the Hungarians to go home, we told the students that everyone had to be in bed by midnight.  But whether in Budapest or Baltimore, teenagers carry with them some universal truths, one being that midnight is more likely a start time than an end.  And so, they told us, in the spirit of standing up for their rights and taking action for justice – the lesson of my Seminar class — they respectfully requested to stay up with one another on the condition that they would be awake and ready to leave at the designated time.

The next morning, as they exchanged tearful, heartfelt, and –yes – on time goodbyes, I knew that they had learned from us lessons not only about activism and agency, language and literacy, spirituality and Judaism, but also about maturity and responsibility, friendship and honesty, and laughter and love.  And we had learned from them that we could have an impact on all students by showing them what they can do and who they can become, by inviting them to find the words and perform the actions to write their own story and create their own future.

Budapest2 Blog#4

As someone whose home runs on a well, I appreciate rain. Of course, like most people, I would rather not see precipitation while I’m traveling and certainly not while I’m touring outside. With one exception.

Thursday evening in Budapest we took our entire group of 12 Beth Tfiloh and 24 Scheiber Sandor students to see the Shoe Memorial on the banks of the Danube River. The memorial honors the over 3,600 victims of the Terror of the Arrow Cross in 1944, 95% Jews and Jewish sympathizers, who were taken to the river bank, forced to undress, and then shot, some still alive as their bodies fell into the freezing water. The shoes, cemented onto the sidewalk next to the river bank, represent the victims who left those shoes behind before they drowned in the river.

As our group lit Yahrzeit candles, recited Kaddish and sang Acheinu, a cold, steady rain fell, prompting those of us with umbrellas to huddle closer, protectively, to those without them. On any other type of tour the rain would have been, at best, an annoyance, and, at worst, a reason to postpone, but on this night, in this place, it was neither.  Instead, the cold rain offered a fitting setting for the scene of our commemoration, a pathetic fallacy of sorts, the natural setting reflecting the personal sorrow we collectively felt at that moment.

The Shoe Memorial was the last activity we did as a group that night, the BT students returning to their hotel and the SSG students to their homes or the Jewish Community Center hostel where some of them boarded.

The next morning when we set out for SSG, we brought all of our belongings with us, as we would be heading directly from school to Leaanyfalu Camp for our Shabbaton. The air was crisp and fresh after the evening rain, the sun warm on our faces.  I thought about our BT seniors, who were in Poland, waiting to travel to Israel on the next leg of their senior trip, the culmination of their education. It struck me that both they and we were simultaneously, bearing witness to a European Jewish community that had been devastated, yet not vanquished. As our seniors joyfully enter the land of Israel, we will step into Shabbat bringing our BT ruach (spirit) and kavanah (mindset).

Budapest2 Blog#3

The image of a Muslim girl standing on a stage with a Jewish girl appears on the wall that serves as a projection screen in the 7th grade classroom where I am teaching, immediately capturing the attention of the fourteen students in the room.  As these 7th graders watch the YouTube video of the girls’ slam poem, I watch along with them, trying to see it through their eyes.  The Muslim girl wears a hijab while the Jewish girl sports denim jeans, and while they may look different from one another, they speak both in sync and in tandem, their message, hopefully, resonating with my students: don’t judge us by preconceived expectations.

This is the first and only time I will meet these 7th graders on this trip, and I have decided to tackle the danger of stereotyping through the slam poem “A Muslim Girl and a Jewish Girl.”  I watch them as they listen to the Jewish girl report how she has been called a money grabber, and the Muslim girl describe how she is routinely taken out of airport security lines and patted down. Even so, the girls focus on their shared experiences:  a love of hummus and a frustration with their mothers who want them to meet a nice Muslim/Jewish boy at a respectable place like a mosque/synagogue.

The part that strikes me comes when the Muslim girl laments the death of a young Israeli girl killed by a bomb at her favorite restaurant by the beach, while the Jewish girl mourns a young Palestinian girl who was shot and killed by an Israeli settler in Hebron.  The 7th graders, chatty and distracted at the beginning of class, watch in silent and rapt attention, stunned not only by the words but by the very concept of a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl sharing one stage, communicating one message.   But when their Hungarian teacher asks me to explain how it is possible that a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl would even be able to attend the same school, it is I who am rendered momentarily silent.

Earlier in that class period, my students and I had talked about traditions, and I introduced the concept that stereotyping others is one of those traditions that we would do well to replace.  When I asked them to tell me about their school traditions, they answered readily, describing Jewish practices such as boys wearing kippot, students lighting candles on Friday and eating kosher food.  But when I asked them, if given a chance, what new traditions they would like to introduce at their school, they did not know how to answer, and their teacher explained that this was probably the first time an adult had asked for their opinion on a school matter.

I began to describe to them Beth Tfiloh’s Student Government, which acts as a voice for the collective student body and runs our Friday assemblies, giving students a forum to present their ideas and introduce activities to the high school.  I encouraged these 7th graders, looking at me in wonder and almost disbelief, to talk to their teachers about forming their own Student Government, to create activities that will engender student involvement and effect change in their school and to enlist the help of their teachers in accomplishing this goal.

Tomorrow I will teach Scheiber Sandor students one last time before accompanying a group of them together with a group of Beth Tfiloh students to a Shabbat retreat, followed by our return trip home on Sunday.  I hope that my SSG students will have learned not only to discard their preconceived notions of others, but to rethink their opinions of themselves, to recognize that they can not only have a voice but can use it to speak for someone else who needs one.

Budapest 2 Blog #2

The group of 14-year-old students sitting in front of me in their class at SSG watched with intensity the YouTube performance of the Slam Poem “Why am I Not Good Enough?”  The poem, which went viral after 13-year-old Olivia Vella wrote and performed it as her final 7th grade English assignment at Queen Creek Middle School, explores the insecurities and challenges that teenagers face as they attempt to navigate the landmine of adolescence.   The video, which has been viewed more than 21 million times, elicited a similar response from my Hungarian students as it has from students all over the world – heads nodding in silent recognition as Vella talks about everything from body image to grades in school.

One girl in my class revealed that this was the second time she had seen the video, and during the first time she had “cried a little.”

These students at SSG share many similarities with my Beth Tfiloh students.  Both groups are bright and engaged, wanting to learn and hoping the teacher will like them.  They answer questions earnestly and enter into their activities with enthusiasm.  But like most teenagers, they share a universal fear of rejection, of being called out as different from their peers, of not fitting in.  Some students admitted that, like Olivia Vellar, they worried about their grades rising too high, not wanting to be labeled a “nerd,” “geek,” or “brainiac.”  And yet, like BT students, they strive to earn those grades anyway, recognizing that academic achievement is the road to reaching their goals for the future.  They walk a tightrope of wanting to stand out to their teachers yet still fit in with their friends.  And this week they are finding the courage to reveal all of that to an American teacher they have just met, visiting from a country that many of them have never seen.

By the middle of this week, 12 Beth Tfiloh students will have arrived in Budapest to share the unique experience of finding common ground with their Hungarian counterparts, to traverse the unsteady bridge between uncertainty and confidence, ignorance and enlightenment, inexperience and understanding.  Our students will teach English to youngsters in the SSG lower school and will celebrate Shabbat with their SSG teenage cohort.  BT students have prepared for weeks, learning about the country, some of them exploring their own Hungarian family roots, and creating English lessons for SSG 3rd graders. They hope to make this experience meaningful for both themselves and their hosts.

And so, even though my Hungarian students may in some way recognize themselves when Olivia Vella repeatedly asks, “Why am I not good enough?”  I hope that in the coming days and weeks they will understand that not only are they good enough, but that they stand out as great in a world where greatness often seems in short supply.  I hope that both BT and SSG students will show one another their strengths and share their challenges, making their universal adolescent burden lighter and filling their journey with the joy of adventure and hope.

Budapest Year 2  Blog #1

On a plane from Baltimore to Brussels – the first leg of my journey to Budapest for the second year of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s partnership with the Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium – I listened to the entire Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album, Déjà Vu.  Having come out in 1970, the height of an era that celebrated freedom in the midst of an unpopular war and civil unrest, the album reinforced my long-held suspicion that I had missed my true calling; I was supposed to have been a hippie.  But since the Summer of Love arrived when I was barely out of first grade and Woodstock happened before my age hit double digits, I had looked back on that time with the longing of one who never truly experienced it.

Until today.

Standing in front of my 12th grade Seminar on Democracy at SSG, I introduced the topic for my session: the Power of Protests.  Referring to the Jewish value of tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world,” I discussed our belief that each person has a responsibility to make the world better, to right the wrongs that we encounter.  I connected Ghandi’s famous plea to “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and I played for them the speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave the night before his assassination, when he prophetically told his followers that, although he had seen the promised land, he might not get there with them.  I watched the interest on their faces as I showed them the anti-Vietnam War protest at the Capitol during the 1967 March on Washington turn to wonder and inspiration as I moved forward over 50 years to the March for Our Lives, with its 18-year-old keynote speaker, David Hogg.

The video clips led to an impassioned discussion of their own country, of recent student demonstrations against the poor state of Hungary’s educational system, of their demands that the newly elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban not turn his back on the students and their need for a quality education.  During our discussion, I learned that the leader of one of the most recent protests was sitting in my class right in front of me.  This young man and his classmates drew strength and validation from their American counterparts who are demanding a safer school environment from their elected leaders.

I had come to class to teach my Hungarian students about an American construct — social justice through student protest from the 1960s to the present.  They taught me that they had already ignited that flame. I left class rooting for them to succeed in repairing their world and hoping that they would sustain the courage to “be the change.”  In a song on Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tell us to “Teach your children well.”  I think, today, we have taught one another.



Coming Full Circle 2017

As the sun sets on our last day in Budapest, I huddle in the frigid air with my Beth Tfiloh colleagues on the east bank of the Danube River as we say goodbye to Shabbat.  The moment should be – and is – achingly beautiful; the bridge and centuries old architecture of the buildings surrounding it light up the river like a scene stolen from a fairy tale.

And yet I cannot focus on the beauty of the approaching nightfall or on the spiritual magic of the Havdalah service we share.  As in my first night in Budapest, I am, again, standing in front of a Holocaust memorial – this time “Shoes on the Danube Bank”: all manner of bronzed shoes – men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, worker’s worn shoes, ladies’ fashionable shoes, delicate petite shoes – cemented into the concrete surrounding the river bank in the slightly haphazard positions of shoes that one has just stepped out of.  Each pair of these shoes stands for the Budapest Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes and then shot into the Danube River by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen on January 8, 1945.  Some victims were killed instantly while others drowned as the freezing water carried them away.  The shoes demand my attention, reminding me of why I have traveled with this team of Beth Tfiloh teachers to Budapest to connect with the teachers and students at the Scheiber-Sandor School to help them breathe life into the tenuous flame of their Jewish community.

Our visit to the Shoe Memorial ends a Shabbat that began on Friday evening with the young people living at the Moishe House in Budapest, a shared home for Jewish young adults who use their rent subsidy and program budget from the non-profit organization Moishe House International to create their own ideal Jewish communal space.   Our Shabbat dinner hosts included a young woman in medical school, another studying veterinary medicine and a young man who just ended what he jokingly termed his “funemployment” to take a technology job.  Daniel, another of our young hosts, and I spoke with shared excitement about the new Jonathan Safran Foer novel Here I Am that we are both currently reading, and I promised to send him my list of book titles and discussion questions from the Jewish Book Club I run for Mercaz, Beth Tfiloh’s adult education program, to help him create his own Jewish Book Club.  These Moishe House residents, so bright and passionate about their work, so warm and welcoming to our group, so committed to reclaiming their Jewish identity in a place where such an identity once proved fatal, represent the future of the Hungarian Jewish community, the role models for our Scheiber Sandor students, many of whom have named leaving Hungary as the goal for their own future.

Now, as I look at these shoes against the beauty of the Danube, I think of all of the young people I have met during the past week — some brimming with hope and optimism, others with cynical bravado — but all wanting the same things that young people everywhere want: the opportunity to become who they are meant to be, the freedom to explore every aspect of their own identity, the chance to belong to something greater than themselves.  I leave Budapest to travel home to my own school in Baltimore recommitted to these ideals, not just for the students in my own community, but to those who I now think of my students at the Scheiber Sandor School.

Day – 5   A Dog, a Dance and a Discussion

The running joke among the Beth Tfiloh group in Budapest is that any time I see a dog walking along the street, sitting at a crosswalk, waiting for a traffic light to change or playing in the park, I am going to stop to ask his owner if I can pet him.  And since a lot of people seem to own dogs in Budapest, this has happened so many times that my colleagues now shout out, “Halaine!  A dog!” whenever they spot one.  And while the group patiently indulges my passion for pets, I’m fairly certain that they do not know this: today, I found a dog when I actually needed one.

After three intensive days of teaching adolescents and teenagers at the Scheiber Sandor School, my fellow BT teachers and I shifted gears and visited the residents of the only Jewish nursing home in Budapest, Holocaust survivors who would share their stories with us.  Like everyone else, I felt honored to sit in the presence of these survivors, their dignity and resilience evident on their faces and in their words.  But a feeling of dread also followed me through the halls of this building: the last time I had been in a nursing home was seven years ago in Baltimore, when my father died in one after a long, sad year of suffering from dementia and then finally succumbing to congestive heart failure.

So as I watched and listened to these gentle senior citizens, clearly so proud and happy to receive their American visitors, my mind kept wandering back to my father and my last conversations with him, moments when I tried to wring out few more precious memories.  Pulling myself back into the present as I walked down the hallway to attend a music program at the Israel Sela Disabled Home in the same building, I noticed on the partially opened door of a resident a photo of her dog and, in her room, the dog himself.

“Is there a dog in there?!?” I asked as I poked my head in, and I could almost feel the silent groans of my group, but at this point, I needed to see a dog.  An elderly woman motioned me in, and I gestured toward a small black poodle standing in the corner. “Bonifac! Bonifac!” she called to him, and I sat on her floor and began to pet her ancient dog.  Despite our language barrier, she was able to gesture that the dog was deaf and very old, but he looked well fed and had food and water bowls and his own dog bed in her room.  My heart lifted a little, imagining Bonifac and his owner facing each new day together, commiserating about their aches and pains, but at least not lonely.

Late for our next activity, I hurried down the hallway to the music program, where about 20 adults, all developmentally disabled, gathered to sing and clap along to Jewish songs with a pianist who was also their teacher.  When she played Hava Nagila, we joined the residents, one-by-one getting up to dance, our collective experience at b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and Day School celebrations propelling us into the most raucous and lively hora that we could manage, and I danced with abandon as joyful optimism made its way back into my heart.

Later that evening, we came full circle at dinner with Linda Vero-Ban, a Jewish educator who, with her husband, a rabbi, runs synagogue programs for families in Budapest and camp sessions for children at the international Jewish Camp Szarvas, about 80 miles away.  As we discussed the state of Jewish education in Hungary, we debated how to meet the need for effective Day Schools and programs to sustain the next generation of Jews. As we talked, my mind returned to the generation we had left only hours earlier, who had both seen and experienced the most unimaginable evil at its most destructive.  And yet they continued their lives with meaning and purpose, told their stories with dignity and strength and even shared the company of an old dog with a visitor who needed one.   I thought about our holy mission, which we had spent the evening discussing with such passion and conviction, and knew, somehow, that my own parents were watching me with pride.

Day 4  Telling Our Truths

On my last day of teaching at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest, I have asked my 7th year students to do what many adults find impossible – reveal their truth.  Perhaps because they are in the thick of their most intensive year of English language study, these students quickly grasp the difference between telling the truth and telling their truth, understanding that I want them to do nothing less than to define themselves for me.  In a sense, everything we have done in our last three class sessions has led to this moment when they will take the pieces of their brainstorming lists, journal entries and first person stories, weave them into a tapestry of their values and beliefs and present them like a gift to their departing American teacher.

We define the terms objective and subjective, and I try to simplify the concepts by explaining that an objective observation is not usually up for debate while the subjective can be rife with opinion.  One young man casually observes that “I am a boy” is an objective truth unless “you are a girl hiding inside of a boy,” and I am reminded that nothing involving adolescents is ever simple.  I model for them by attempting to write my own truths on the board.

My truth is that I am a teacher.  My truth is that I am kind.  My truth is that I care about others.

I write the statements that I work each day to make into truths.  I have brought these goals with me to Budapest and hope that my students and partner teachers have found these truths in me.

My students write their truths with great concentration in the journals I have brought to them from my school in America: “My truth is that I love animals.”  “My truth is that I play sports.”  “My truth is that I feel free when I paint.”  “My truth is that I am emotional, but I feel better after I cry.”  Their responses reflect their different levels of maturity and insight, their reluctance or willingness to open up to their classmates, to me, to themselves.  They are responses I would find in my classroom in America as well, and, again, I am reminded of the universal nature of students.

I am still thinking about our truths as I go to my next class, the last one of the day before I will pack up and say goodbye to the host teachers who have opened their classrooms, minds and hearts to us this week.  My next group, a small class of six 12th year students, waits for me with hopeful expectation.  They have enjoyed writing about their thoughts and feelings, exploring their ideas in a journal as a way to practice their English writing and speaking skills.  One student writes that as a young child learning that her mother was going to have a baby “all of my body parts inside me danced around, and I could not sit still.”  A boy who reminds me of a young John Lennon writes of the day that “I met the guitar I was meant to have.”  They had grasped the concept of figurative language in English, a foreign language, and I watch in wonder as they share with me the pivotal moments in their lives.

At the end of this last day at Scheiber Sandor our partner teachers gather us together for a farewell party.  They thank us with trays of food, gifts of Scheiber Sandor tee shirts and bottles of wine and their genuine heartfelt thanks.  We have taken only the first step on our journey with these new colleagues and friends as we create our truths together.

Day 3  Falling in Love

The young man in my 10th year English class slinks down in his seat at the back of the room and looks out at me from under the lid of his NY Yankees baseball cap.  The Yankees? Seriously?  Does he not remember that I am from Baltimore?

“Are you a Yankees fan?” I ask him, and he nods and utters, “Yes, I am,” almost defiantly.

“Well, then you and I may have to fight,” I joke, pulling out my Baltimore Orioles calendar featuring players with their pets and various shelter animals from BARCS, but he only shrugs.

The Yankees Fan is one of four boys in my 10th year class at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest who are determined to convince me that they are too cool to be impressed, even by an English teacher who has traveled all the way from America to help them express their ideas in writing.  But I have been teaching longer than these boys have been alive so even The Yankees Fan cannot put a dent in my enthusiasm and resolve.

“Today I am going to talk to you about falling in love.”  As I announce this, my class sits up a bit straighter, and I notice I have captured the attention of The Cool Boys.  Gabor, my Hungarian co-teacher looks nervous, having cautioned me that his students may not be mature enough for this lesson plan.  But I plough ahead, knowing that the lesson could go down in flames, yet determined to encourage my Budapest partner teachers to take creative risks in their classrooms.

I read a quote by Georgia Heard, writer, poet and founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: “I’m in love with light and everything the sun brushes.  I look around for what else I can fall in love with.  The tulips, orchids and roses in water buckets, and the man who tends them – changing water and dripping buds.  Inside the market walls are stacked with vegetables  –unhusked corn, ripe tomatoes, the green and red next to each other make my eyes dance.”  I watch the students as I read, all looking at me, transfixed by the rhythm of the phrases, mesmerized by the colors that the words paint across their mind’s eye, wondering what it means to “make my eyes dance.”

Falling in love, I explain, is not merely a romantic idea, but an intensity of feeling, an excitement that someone or something inspires in you, a yearning that you do not want to quench.  They look at me – The Cool Boys, The Yankees Fan, the rest of the students who sense that they are standing on the precipice of learning something important. I know I need to bring this concept back around to an example that they can understand, so I tell them the story of when I adopted a kitten for the first time, and how in her tiny trusting innocence, she made me fall in love.  Worried that they will now label me The Crazy American Cat Lady, I look around and notice heads nodding in understanding.  The Cool Boys won’t quite look at me, but they have begun to write in their journals.  I have made an inroad, something on which my class can hang our collective hats, even a Yankees baseball cap.

Day 2

Emily, a vivacious 11th year student with flawless English, ushers me up and down hallways, in and out of the classrooms and library and stops in a spacious lobby adorned with a row of lovely stained glass windows. She is my tour guide this morning on my first day at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest where I have come to teach English along with six of my colleagues from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.  With her long curly hair and denim jeans, Emily could easily have been one of my own American students, I think, a moment before she reveals that she is, in fact, “half American” on her father’s side and has lived in Virginia, DC and Connecticut.  I greet this news with the same sense of pleased familiarity that I might greet a stranger wearing an Orioles cap on the subway in Manhattan.  We chat about the schools she has attended in the States and her hopes to go to university in the U.K., and the ease of our conversation fills me with confidence before I face my first class.

Moments later, I stand before my sixth year students, who regard me with curiosity – the American teacher has arrived, and they are not sure what to expect.  I share their uncertainty, but my Hungarian co-teacher, Violetta, brings into her classroom energy and enthusiasm, and soon I am introducing myself in slow and precise English and listening as each student attempts to do the same.  I ask them to share something about themselves, and I learn who has a pet, a sibling, a hobby.  I meet several “football” (soccer) players, a swimmer, video gamers, a dancer, and many who like to read and spend time with their family and friends.  I hand out writing journals that I have made for them – former Blue Examination Books redesigned as journals through the magic of bright blue and white BT stickers.

Violetta and I circulate around the room and help students with their writing prompt: what things do you surround yourself with and how do those things reflect who you are? The students regard their task with a great deal of seriousness; they want to please the American teacher, particularly since I have revealed that for each response they can earn a few of the Hershey kisses that I have pulled from my bag.  They ask questions, concentrate as they read, raise their hands with enthusiasm, and receive their chocolate with gratitude.  Their energy and enthusiasm feeds my own, and at the end of class I leave, eager for my next group — 12th year students.

As a college counselor and 12th grade College Writing teacher at BT, I feel like I know this group, and in many ways I do; confident and articulate, they smile at me with warmth, welcoming me the way I would expect my own students to welcome a guest teacher.  I talk to them about stereotypes and ask them to write about something that they had once believed to be true but have learned to see in a different way.  One student writes that she used to hold homeless people responsible for their own misfortunes, but she now sees that sometimes circumstances can conspire against anyone.  Humbled, I think of the streets in Baltimore and resolve not to judge the people living on them.

In my 10th year class I discover that exploring one’s feelings in a journal may be a particularly American construct.  No one here has ever written their thoughts in a journal; my prompt asking them to describe an ordinary event that defines who they are is met with blank stares.  We define the concept of brainstorming, and I model it for them, using my own experiences.  I describe to them a “Gratitude Journal” and confess that I sometimes write in an “Anger Journal” that I keep for those times when I need a safe and acceptable place for those feelings.  Their eyes reveal their bemusement; who is this American teacher with a journal for each category of feelings?  But I persist and assign to them a journal entry for tomorrow, determined to teach them to use their writing as a tool for reflection and understanding.  And I am asking them to do this in English.  Yes, the American teacher has arrived.

Day 1    The Journey Begins

I’m standing on a narrow street in what was once the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest.  One of a team of seven teachers from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, I have come to Budapest to work with teachers from Scheiber Sandor Day School with the hopes of enriching their school and thus enriching the Jewish community.    My colleagues and I walk back to our hotel having just come from a welcoming dinner with the Scheiber teachers at a lovely Glatt Kosher restaurant in this city known for both its partying and pastries.

Since August our Beth Tfiloh team has planned and discussed what and how to teach these students whom we will meet tomorrow.  We are a varied and skilled group – teachers of Judaics, English, History, Foreign Language, Arts and Wellness.  We range from traditional to modern orthodox, from conservative to reform to “pick and choose” Jews to Gentiles.  Religiously diverse, we all share a love of teaching, of our school, of our students.  We have spent the last five months creating lesson plans to teach segments of our subjects to students whom we don’t know whose English speaking skills we have not yet assessed.  Yet in spite of all of these unknowns, we share our excitement and enthusiasm with our host teachers who are beginning their own journey with us, who report that their students are both nervous and excited to meet the American teachers.  We have carried our handouts and lesson plans, our books and materials through baggage checks and security many thousands of miles to reach this moment.

I have come to Budapest armed with two pages of writing prompts, 100 writing journals and three calendars depicting dogs in their various stages of “cute.”  One calendar features Baltimore Orioles team members holding shelter dogs from BARCS, an animal rescue in Baltimore.  Who can resist puppies and baseball?  Failing all else, I have brought chocolate.  My plan is to ask these students to explore their feelings through memoir writing in English, and I am hoping to ease their nervousness by surrounding them with the things that have always put me at ease.

As we walk home from our welcoming dinner, a wall filled with pinpoint lights catches my eye.  The points of light populate the wall and then slowly decrease until they disappear.  I realize that I am standing before a Holocaust memorial.  The words on an adjacent wall tell of the 70,000 Jews in Budapest who were forced into ghettos and killed, ending with an entreaty to the visitor to recite the 23rd psalm, chiseled into the wall in Hungarian, Hebrew and English.  Silently, I recite the psalm in English, while my colleagues wait ahead, wondering what has detained me.  My nervousness for my first day at Scheiber has fallen away, and I am ready to begin my journey.

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