Elliott is Prizmah's Director of Thought Leadership. Learn more about him here.

Supporting the Wellbeing of Israeli Transfer Students

Recently, some members of Prizmah’s Learning Specialist Reshet participated in a conversation facilitated by Dr. Rachel Fryman to share what their schools are experiencing, learning and doing for Israeli transfer students and their families. They spoke candidly about what they’re seeing, how they’re working to support the students, and where they have needs for more resources. The schools where these professionals work range from receiving a handful of such students to many dozens. Here, we are keeping the particular schools anonymous, both to protect their confidentiality and to present a composite portrait of a section of the field.

The staff have been uniformly dedicated to shouldering the extra tasks involved in this avodah kedoshah, holy work. Their work started in many cases before the first student crossed the threshold of their classroom. The intake process, interviews with parents and children, enabled them to get to know these new families and to devise strategies for support. They needed to consider issues such as, how many students could they realistically accommodate in a given class? What kinds of needs were they likely to see, and how could they help meet those needs, both inside the classroom and beyond? How would they integrate students into the social dynamics that already exist among the students? The learning specialists and guidance department teams were devoted to partnering with teachers to implement trauma-informed strategies that would nurture these students who, to varying degrees, have been exposed to the horrors of October 7 and the subsequent war. Above all, they emphasize that compassion is the guiding principle for their relationship with these students.

Among the students themselves, schools are finding an enormous variety of needs and reactions to the trauma. Some students are able to embrace their new environment, positively running to school after just a couple of days; others are having a much harder time. Student behavior also diverges, with some showing signs of hyperactivity and others more hypoactive, withdrawn. The academic needs as well are quite varied, with students ranging from considerable fluency in English to complete lack of language knowledge. Many schools have hired extra Hebrew support in the classroom, and boosted their ESL staff as well by reaching out to part-time and retired teachers to come back on a temporary basis.

As mentioned, schools have invested considerably in student support, in many cases with Federation backing. They’ve needed more hands on deck—depending on the numbers, many more hands—to give these students the support they need to recover and thrive during their time at the school. Often, they’ve found human resources within the larger ecosystem of the school who were able to step up and meet these needs. 

They’ve drawn upon Hebrew speakers in the community, to teach special classes, to facilitate social groups. In some cases, they’ve taken professionals employed part time and had them switch to full time, for this period of uncertain duration. Some schools have been able to tap into recent retirees, with former teachers and administrators returning to provide help. Parents have stepped in to volunteer, and PTAs have coordinated efforts with the parent body to ensure a full-team effort. Volunteers have supported teachers in numerous ways, from helping students one-on-one to accompanying students for pull-out sessions.

Schools have dedicated considerable efforts not just to support students’ academic and psychological needs, but for their social needs as well. In many cases, this has started by clearing their schedule of classes, reducing the emphasis on academics. Students are given extra play time, and group time for the kids to talk, relax, and process, with a Hebrew speaking adult. Some schools have assigned them peer mentors who help Israeli students learn the ropes.  

Likewise, parents have mobilized to give support for these families. They’ve donated or purchased clothing, such as cold weather clothes for schools in northern climates; some families required housing, especially if their stay extended longer than originally anticipated. Parents were given the phone numbers of new families upon their arrival, so that they could immediately call to welcome them, invite them to visit, arrange a playdate. One school had parents arrange regular coffee dates to make friends, check in on their wellbeing, inquire after their needs.

A different kind of support was required for shlichot, wives whose husbands were called up for IDF service and were left behind with the children. These women continued working at the school while simultaneously trying to handle their kids at home. Schools devised a variety of means to help these beloved faculty cope with their newfound stresses. Faculty peers made trips to do all of the grocery shopping for the family, even organizing leftovers from the school cafeteria to be packaged and distributed to families in temporary need. Administrators found ways to lighten their teaching load, such as having them assign no homework. Counselors taught them, and other teachers feeling anxious and burnt out, meditation techniques such as mindful breathing and visualization.

While the volume of students has declined, some of these students remain in the schools, and some new students will be arriving in the new year. The remarkable level of support marshaled by schools has enabled these students and their families to find a respite from the traumas at home and return strengthened in mind and spirit.