On a sunny afternoon in late January, 18 men and women of various ages walked into a classroom in the nursing school building at Wolfson Medical Center in the central coastal town of Holon. Chatting, they took their seats and prepared notebooks and pens for the lesson.

Dressed in street clothes or gray hoodie hospital sweatshirts over white scrub-style uniforms, these students, immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union who work as cleaners at the hospital, were all there to learn Hebrew. None can read or write the language, despite having lived in Israel for up to several decades.

It is likely they would have stayed functionally illiterate were it not for ERETZ (translated into English as Empowerment Through Education), a new nonprofit organization providing on-site remedial education to lower skilled workers in Israel’s hospitals and universities.

ERETZ is the brainchild of Shai Gul, a 39-year-old Israeli mathematician who took notice of the cleaners at Bar-Ilan University, where he was pursuing a doctoral degree back in 2015. As he taught undergraduates and worked on his dissertation in discrete geometry, he observed the cleaners — mainly Arab women from the impoverished town of Jisr az-Zarqa — mopping the floors, emptying the wastepaper baskets and cleaning the toilets.

Dr. Shai Gul, ERETZ founder (Courtesy)

Dr. Shai Gul, ERETZ founder (Courtesy)

It bothered Gul that he and the cleaners lived parallel lives. It made no sense to him that although he and the cleaners were all university employees, only he could avail himself of its educational resources. He had a feeling the cleaning staff would be eager to learn if only they had the chance.

It turned out Gul’s hunch was right. Taking it upon himself to offer a basic math class to the cleaners, he recruited volunteer undergraduates to help — and the cleaners showed up.

An English class came after that, followed by an expansion of the initiative for cleaning staff at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, and at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

The weekly course at Wolfson Medical Center is the first focusing on Hebrew, and also the first where the students are new immigrants — as opposed to Israeli Arabs from Jisr az-Zarqa, East Jerusalem, or villages in the north.

‘One of the women I taught never even went to first grade’

As his initiative gained momentum and racked up successes (for example, one of the Arab cleaners is completing her high school matriculation, and three others have been accepted to kindergarten assistant training programs), Gul recruited board members and registered ERETZ as a non-profit.

His plan is to expand the volunteer-taught program into other universities and hospitals around the country. ERETZ is currently working with the Economy Ministry on certification guidelines for the organization’s 40-hour courses so that an ERETZ completion certificate would qualify an individual for vocational or technical training.

“The goal is simple: It’s to provide education to those who need it. Many of these people never finished elementary school. One of the women I taught never even went to first grade,” said Gul, now a senior lecturer at the Holon Institute of Technology.

Addressing a real need

Research on the educational and Hebrew literacy levels of Arab Israelis and new immigrants supports what Gul instinctively knew when he first observed the cleaners at Bar-Ilan University.

Chen Shevelov (left) helps a student in ERETZ Hebrew class for cleaners at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Chen Shevelov (left) helps a student in ERETZ Hebrew class for cleaners at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

According to the JDC-Myers-Brookdale Institute, twice as many Arab Israelis as Jewish Israelis drop out of high school by age 17 (16% versus 8% in 2009). In addition, a significant percentage of young Arab women (even those who have completed high school) don’t speak or write Hebrew well enough to seek gainful employment, nor do they have vocational, technical or computer training. Recent OECD and PISA scores show significant gaps between Arabs and Jews in Israel when it comes to literacy and numeracy.

The situation is also troubling when it comes to new immigrants. Many older and middle-aged immigrants from the FSU are still not proficient in Hebrew and English years and decades after their arrival, and many are not working in their professions, according to a 2015 JDC-Myers-Brookdale Institute report.

Among immigrants from Ethiopia, only 36% of those who came at age 12 or older completed high school. In general, Ethiopian Israelis are at the lower end of the employment scale, with 62% in occupations requiring low skill levels. According to a June 2015 Taub Center policy brief by Hadas Fuchs and Gilad Brand, about half of Ethiopian immigrant women and 17% of Ethiopian immigrant men who arrived after age 12 work as cleaners or kitchen workers.

Changing lives in big and small ways

For some students, one or two ERETZ courses can lead to major changes. Twenty-five-year-old Hadil Shihab from Jisr az-Zarqa is a cleaner at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, and is also enrolled in a 10-month training program to become a special education assistant.

“I took the math course at Tel Hashomer and got 100% on the final exam,” Shihab said proudly. “I wouldn’t have thought of continuing my education if it hadn’t been for Shai,” she said.

Tamara Morduchayev (left), a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, learns Hebrew in ERETZ class, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Tamara Morduchayev (left), a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, learns Hebrew in ERETZ class, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Others just want to gain math or literacy skills so they can get along more easily in life in Israel. Hamda Jubran, 30, also from Jisr az-Zarqa, had to quit her cleaning job at Bar-Ilan University to take care of her ailing mother. She dreams of one day studying to be a special education assistant like Shihab, but in the meantime is pleased to have newly acquired math skills to use as she shops and helps her illiterate uncle with bill paying.

Wolfson Medical Center cleaner Tamara Morduchayev immigrated from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1992. She skipped ulpan (Hebrew immersion classes for immigrants) to go straight to work to support her family, and subsequently never learned to read and write Hebrew. At 51, she doesn’t have plans for major changes.

Chana (Wigayu) Tilahon, a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, learns Hebrew in an ERETZ class at the hospital, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Chana (Wigayu) Tilahon, a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, learns Hebrew in an ERETZ class at the hospital, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“I just wanted to do this for myself, so I won’t have to always ask my daughter to translate letters and documents for me,” she said.

Some of Morduchayev’s younger classmates hope to still have time to pursue higher education.

“I want to go all the way. I dream of going to university and studying management,” said Lakachew Mulu, 36, of Jaffa. Having only made it through fifth grade as a child, he knows he has a lot to make up. He also has to put supporting his wife and four children ahead of everything.

Chana (Wigayu) Tilahon is also realistic about what is achievable, but she is also celebrating small, daily victories as she learns to read and write for the first time in her life. A 31-year-old mother of three, she did not know how to write her own name or numerals before this class. Tilahon beamed as the teacher, Chen Shevelov (who is Gul’s wife and active in ERETZ), showed off to the class a time sheet that Tilahon filled out for her boss at the hospital.

“It is amazing to see how serious these students are and how well they are learning, especially considering that some of the Ethiopian immigrants didn’t even know how to properly hold a pen or write their phone number before this,” Shevelov said.

A win-win situation

For the first couple of years, Gul managed without a budget. He, Shevelov and others ran ERETZ in addition to holding down full-time jobs in academia and business. The undergraduate students received no compensation for their teaching time, and the cleaner-students gave up their lunch times or coffee breaks to take the classes.

‘If we invest in our workers, they will give more to, and do better at their job’

This changed when Gul approached Dr. Yitzhak Berlovich, CEO at Wolfson Medical Center, who offered to pay to bring the ERETZ Hebrew class to his hospital. Instead of the class being off the clock as at other locations, this one is during the cleaners’ official work day, and they are paid for their time. In addition, the three undergrads helping Shevelov teach the course are given a stipend.

“We recognized we had a problem. Our workers don’t have basic life skills in literacy and math, and we can improve their quality of life and integration into society by helping them gain those skills,” Berlovich said.

The CEO sees it as a win-win situation, as the hospital also stands to gain from the workers acquiring a basic education.

“If we invest in our workers, they will give more to, and do better at their job,” Berlovich said.

Volunteer teacher, Holon Institute of Technology student Julia Aharon (right) watches as one of her students, a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center, writes on the board during ERETZ Hebrew class, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Volunteer teacher, Holon Institute of Technology student Julia Aharon (right) watches as one of her students, a cleaner at Wolfson Medical Center, writes on the board during ERETZ Hebrew class, January 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Berlovich said he will prioritize the opening of more ERETZ classes at his institution. This first class was oversubscribed, with more than 50 employees from the cleaning and laundry departments vying for 18 available spots. He’ll continue to do some creative budgeting to facilitate the expansion.

This first class was oversubscribed, with more than 50 employees from the cleaning and laundry departments vying for 18 available spots

“We never had a budget line for this. I just shifted funds originally allocated to professional development for hospital staff to this. I am confident doctors and nurses will figure out how to get their continuing education courses another way,” he said.

The money will hopefully attract more university students looking to make some extra cash by teaching.

And for some, like 23-year-old Julia Aharon, it will never be about the money. A first-year computer science student at the Holon Institute of Technology and the daughter of immigrants from the FSU, she decided to assist Shevelov in the Wolfson class despite learning that she was ineligible for a stipend.

“I felt I could give a lot and make a real difference. There are people here with a lot of potential,” she said.