Teaching Math to Israel’s ‘Invisibles’

October 25, 2017
Photo by Ofer Amram.

Shai Gul walked into the oversized shed masquerading as a wedding hall and was shocked at the level of abject poverty he encountered.

This was Jisr az-Zarqa, Israel’s poorest town and the last remaining Arab coastal enclave, but Shai still was astounded to discover that there was barely enough food to feed the wedding guests, most of whom were wearing clothes riddled with holes.

Shai was treated as the guest of honor — Hanan, the bride, felt she owed him a deep debt of gratitude. A cleaner, Hanan was one of many “invisibles,” as Shai refers to them, at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, where he served as a lecturer in the department of mathematics. Over the years, Shai began taking notice of these people.

“I asked myself, How did they get there? Why don’t I pay them the same attention I give to others? What’s the difference between my life and theirs?” he said.

His curiosity compelled him to begin striking up conversations with them, and ever so slowly these disenfranchised women — and a sprinkling of men — began opening up to him. The majority, he learned, lived below the poverty line and had been forced to drop out of school at a very young age to contribute to the family income.

To help, Shai convinced them to spend their lunch breaks attending classes that he would give on basic arithmetic. “I began by teaching percentages. I’d see them nodding their heads as if they understood. But by the third lesson, I realized something was missing,” Shai said.

Shai convinced them to spend their lunch breaks attending classes that he would have given on basic arithmetic.

He called on one of his students to give him the answer to one plus one. She was silent. He then asked her what her dream in life was. This time, she answered without hesitation: She wanted to become a cashier. He asked the rest of the women in the class. They all said the same thing. They wanted to become cashiers in a supermarket.

“I’m a mathematician. My nature is problem-solving. This was a problem. How do people who don’t know one plus one become cashiers?” he said.

The same day, Shai called up the branch of Israel’s largest supermarket chain that was closest to the Arab village that many of the cleaners came from. It took him months of hard work — a delicate cocktail of chutzpah and cajoling — until he received a commitment from the district manager to hire these women as cashiers once they had graduated from Shai’s evolving course.

But Shai’s ecstasy crumbled when his protégés told him they had no interest in working at the store. Many of them preferred the 4 a.m. wake-up and commute to Bar-Ilan — as long as it meant they could just be far from home.

It was to be the first of many Icarus moments that Shai would experience as Eretz, the nonprofit he founded, took wing. Yet now, two years after its founding, more than 30 volunteers have taught arithmetic, basic literacy and even computer skills to 120 janitorial staff members — mostly Arabs, Russians and Ethiopians — in seven hospitals and academic institutions around Israel.

Eretz, the name Shai chose for his nonprofit, means “land” and also doubles as the Hebrew acronym for “academics serving the public sector.” It dovetails with a far more poetic sentiment.

“From a young age, we Israelis are raised to think about our contribution to this country. But we’re also raised to believe that the real salt of the earth is the blond, blue-eyed Israeli from Sayeret Matkal,” Shai said, referring to the elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces. His brown eyes — courtesy of a Bukharian father and Yemenite mother — seemed far away as he continued. “But that model is skewed. I see it every day with my students — people who have struggled so hard just to be here. They want to be given the chance to be a part of this country’s society as much as anyone else.”

As for Hanan, the Arab bride from Shai’s debut class who harbored dreams of becoming a cashier, she ended up chasing dreams she never knew she had. Despite having never made it to high school, Hanan was accepted into a fully accredited college to study early childhood pedagogy.

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