A Bridge Between Two Worlds // A chareidi woman teaches students in an Arab city

By Sima Horovitz

“Boker tov, talmidim,” she begins each lesson in Hebrew. The students stand up and answer, “Boker tov, hamorah.” Then they sit back down and the lesson begins.

“I had been teaching for a number of years,” Mrs. Ital Levy recounts. “I was thinking of going in another direction and trying something else when I received a proposal from the Abraham Initiative suggesting that I teach in Umm al-Fahm. They were looking for a Hebrew teacher who understood Arabic. I had heard of the organization so I considered it, realizing that it was certainly something different. I called our rav to ask him about it. He wasn’t available to take the call, so I sent him a message that I had a job interview at an Arab school in Umm al-Fahm. He wrote back: ‘Take the job. Hashem will help you.’ That’s what convinced me to do it. I felt it was the right thing for me to do.

“I went to the school for the interview,” she continues. “In my phone calls, in my emails and on my résumé there is no indication that I am religious. But when they saw me with my chareidi attire, with my snood and modest clothes, they asked if I was sure I was in the right place. ‘The job is here in Umm al-Fahm, you know,’ they informed me. ‘Yes, I know,’ I smiled back. I can’t explain it, but I felt this was the right place for me, and I got the job.”
Three years later, Ital says she is very pleased with her decision, and that she feels she has found her calling. She recently received a tempting offer to become vice principal of a new school in Afula. She turned it down because she decided to stay in Umm al-Fahm.

She explains, “When I first arrived many people were surprised, and they were flustered by my presence. I was also worried in the beginning, but I found children who really wanted to learn Hebrew, and I also enjoyed interacting with their parents. I felt that they respected me, and not just because I was teaching their children. I was a teacher of real life who answered their questions about difficult things that happen on a daily basis. I have learned how to relate to them very well, and I feel that I’m much more than a language teacher.

“When I talk to my Arab neighbors I find that we have a lot of values in common, such as tzniut, respect for teachers and of belief in the Creator. I believe that as a religious teacher I can get along and connect with the traditional Arabs more than a secular teacher who, for example, arrives in immodest clothing and does not understand the way of life of a deeply traditional society.”

“Do Muslim children show respect for their teachers?”

“They behave the same way as any children,” she answers. “They can be noisy and chutzpahdik, and there is a lack of discipline just like in any school. I will say that these parents have more respect for teachers than the parents I interacted with in Israeli schools, but it is not so great a dichotomy that I would consider them as different worlds. It’s not about the Jewish or Arab sectors; it’s more universal.”

Ital was born to a religious Zionist family that emigrated from Morocco and spoke Arabic. “I was born here in Israel,” she says, “but I learned Arabic from my parents. My mother worked in hospitals and used her Arabic to deal with Arab patients. My father was engaged in animal trading and raising sheep, and he also had contact with Arab speakers, so I learned the language, too. Children absorb languages quickly, which I’ve seen firsthand from my experience as a teacher.”

Though raised in a religious home, over time she drifted away from observance, attended secular schools and served in the Israeli Army. As a young adult she began to seek her way back and drew closer to Judaism. She began studying communications and thought of working in academia. It was her high-level studies, she feels, that got her more interested in Judaism.

“We studied different complex theories and—having had some prior knowledge of Judaism—I realized that what was being taught as complicated, intellectual theories were actually all discussed previously by Chazal. All kinds of notions being presented as chiddushim can be found in Pirkei Avot. For example, there is a theory in sociology called ‘The Looking-Glass Self’ by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. He explains the connection with the environment and social interaction as the basis for creating our self-images. We understand the way others relate to our behavior. We interpret the judgment of others about us, and we evaluate our behavior in accordance with the responses of others. According to Cooley, self is a generalized image of the way we are perceived by other people, and thus demonstrates the impact that the environment has on us. But in our religion we already have that summed up: Make sure to have the right friends and you will develop a good personality accordingly.

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