WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 — Perhaps it’s a copy of Goodnight Moon, or a favorite Dr. Seuss story. Or, maybe it’s a Harry Potter book, or a classic like Little Women. Whatever kind of English-language literature book for children or teens it is, Rockville’s Rena Cohen would like to see that book make its way to an Israeli school child. With so many funds in Israel being diverted toward security needs, Cohen says Israeli public school teachers are finding their budgets severely cut. Inspired by her sister, Jade Bar-Shalom, a lecturer at Haifa University, Cohen has organized the Greater Washington DC Books for Israel Project, sponsored by Magen David Sephardi Congregation’s Israel action committee. A former English foreign language teacher in Israel, Bar-Shalom gave a workshop at the national English Teachers’ Association in Israel (ETAI) annual conference over the summer. There, she heard teachers complaining that the book budget had been slashed, and they had little or no English language books for the students. The situation, she says, is more dire in developing communities, but is being felt everywhere. “When education levels erode for lack of facilities, supplies and funding, all our children become less equipped to deal with a possible future,” she says in an e-mail. “And when English language education levels are threatening to slip, we are losing a grip not only on communication potentials that enable Israelis of all ethnic groups to trade with one another and with international markets, but we are also eroding our ability to speak coherently and with understanding in the international language of diplomacy and peace.” She began brainstorming with educators about the possibility of bringing English language books to Israel, and with her sister’s help, the Books for Israel Project was born. The campaign is encouraging book drives throughout the United States. Books can be used or new, Cohen says, “preschool, up to what would be appropriate for a 10th- or 11th-grader.” Organizers will provide those interested in holding a book drive with “donated with love to a child in Israel” labels to put in the books, and an address in Israel where the books can be sent. The campaign recommends that books be sent in U.S. Postal Service M Bags, which “comes out to about a buck a pound,” Cohen says. The donor labels serve a twofold purpose, she explains, personalizing the donation for both the contributor and the recipient. For the Israeli youngster who receives a book, it sends a message, Cohen says, “That somebody from the United States or England cares that I have this book.” The labels also make it clear that the books have been donated, and are not subject to sales tax. Bar-Shalom’s 11-year-old daughter, Zohar, has created a project logo that includes hands of various skin colors reaching for a book. The response to the project has so far been phenomenal, says Cohen, who just started publicizing the campaign a few weeks ago. Already plans for drives are in the works at a public high school in Miami, a Solomon Schechter school in St. Louis and at synagogues in Florida, Colorado and Massachusetts. Locally, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville has agreed to provide a drop-off box throughout November, Jewish Book Month. Meanwhile, a Web-based education project is taking place parallel to the book project. Bar-Shalom has been working with Ari Sherris, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in the District, on this effort to bring together Israeli and North American teachers. Sherris so far has 20 Israeli teachers and two North American teachers interested in the project, which would have the teachers brainstorm on a list of written projects, such as book reviews or journal entries, that students can demonstrate what they’ve learned about a book. The teachers would then make a checklist, or “rubric,” as he terms it, of the elements required for an acceptable project. They will take into consideration the standards of their local school districts as well. North American and Israeli teachers will be paired, and, through a Web site, their classes will be able to do projects together. For example, American students might read a book, then write reviews that are posted on the site. Israeli students can “use the example of native English speakers for a model for their own writing,” Sherris says. Information on the Books for Israel project is available by e-mailing IsraelActionMDSC@hotmail.com. Those wishing to help with the cost of mailing books can make out checks to Magen David Sephardic Congregation and send them to the Israel Action Committee, MDSC, PO Box 813, Rockville, MD 20848 attn: Books for Israel Project.
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Debra Rubin is a contributing writer to JTA.
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