By Ben Tinsley
In a place very far removed from his hometown of Arlington, native Texan Max Unger teaches English to Israeli children in Ramle-Lod through Masa Israel’s Teaching Fellows program.
The 26-year-old University of Texas at Arlington graduate said this is an incredibly rewarding experience.
“It’s great because I feel like I’m making a difference — sharing a gift,” Unger said during a recent telephone interview from Israel. “English is the unofficial language of business and it is very important to speak it. Many Israelis want to speak English. I mean, I’m not solving world hunger or anything but this is a gift, a tiny gift. The kids where I teach don’t get that much exposure to languages.”
Unger’s primary work takes place at an English learning center to tutor underprivileged students. Twice a week, he makes in-home visits to help less advanced students get ahead on their English. In Ramle-Lod, he and an Israeli teacher have set up a tutoring program for struggling students to continue their English studies at home after school.
In class, the students are less comfortable in front of the more advanced students and don’t wish to be mocked, Unger explained.
The teaching experience gets interesting along the way, Unger said. Late last month, his third- and fourth-graders performed a tribute to the late David Bowie for visitors from Virginia.
And his hard work does not go unrewarded. On his birthday in January, Unger’s students and teaching partner Dory Beth made him a giant two-sided birthday card.
“You’re welcome!” Dori Beth enthused in her Facebook response to Unger.
While Masa Israel’s Teaching Fellows assist teachers in some of Israel’s most overcrowded classrooms, a great deal of their work takes place outside of traditional learning spaces. They work with small groups of students outside the classroom and help to decrease class sizes so students can get more individualized attention.
This is much appreciated by students.
“It is more fun to be with them than it is to be in class with a teacher because we learn in a fun way and have fun outside the classroom,” said May Levy, a fourth-grader from Petach Tikvah, on the Masa Israel’s Teaching Fellows website.
Last month, Max participated in Masa’s Leadership Summit in Israel, an exclusive seminar designed in partnership with the Jewish Agency’s Global Leadership Institute for a diverse group of high-potential Masa Israel participants to develop their leadership capacity.
Unger said being in Israel gives him a great opportunity to spend time with his brother and other family members he has there.
“I grew up with a very close relationship with my brother,” Unger said. “But with him living in Tiberias for almost two years now and given that I will likely be living on the other side of an ocean from him after my time here, it is very nice to be able to spend a year near here while living almost for free.”
Unger — who is about halfway through his 10-month teaching journey — said he gets free room and board and a stipend as compensation for his teaching.
He said teaching English to these wonderful students will go a long way toward helping their future.
“Because most of them already know Hebrew and Russian but have grown up and live in Ramle, they have not had many opportunities to interact with English speakers and thus they do not know why it would be important for them to learn a third language,” Unger said. “But now that I am there, I speak English and they have a desire to speak to me, I am able to be that reason for them to care about English.”
Whether he is teaching a group of students in the school or visiting one of his less advanced students in their home during one of his weekly house visits, Unger said he feels such an overwhelming warmness from his students.
“I don’t have to do anything but wake up every morning and show up at school and I make their day,” he said.
Unger said his favorite part of working in the school is his interaction with the students.
“Everyday that I walk into Ofek School in Ramle, I am a rock star,” he said. “Those students are more excited just to see me every day than I think I have ever been excited about anything. They line up to give me high-fives and hugs. They yell my name down the hallways just to get my attention long enough to wave at me and say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning.’ They ask me in whatever amount of English they have about my life back in America and inquire as to which one of their favorite celebrities that I know.”
In their enthusiasm, the students quarrel over whom Unger is going to play with at recess and often make him promise that next time he will play with whoever is not “lucky enough” to play with him that particular day, he said.
“They laugh at me every time I say a Hebrew word that sounds funny to them in an American accent and run to grab their friends so they can beg me to say it again and give them another big laugh,” Unger said. “By the time I leave school each day, my face hurts almost as much from smiling so much as my hands sting from the hundreds of high-fives I have given out. The best part is that I know every day that I get to come back to an equally warm welcome the next day.”
Ultimately, Unger said, he is not sure what he is going to do after he is finished with the program.
“It is comforting to me because my options are wide-open,” he said. “After I finished college I was in such a rush to find a job and start working that I didn’t allow myself to really find out what was right for me professionally. Living in Israel for 10 months has given me a second chance to truly evaluate where I want my life to go next. I have had the opportunity to examine all my options and weigh out which one truly interested me versus what sounded good in theory. It has allowed me time to write jokes for my stand-up comedy act that I have been working on in my free time for the last few years as well.”
An August 2013 graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington with a bachelor’s degree in communication broadcasting, Unger said his ultimate goal in life is a fulfilling career.
“I want to find a job I love with the hopes of never truly ‘working’ a day of my life — whether that be in broadcasting, something similar or something completely different,” he said. “I have also considered going back to school for my graduate degree as well.”