Canadian volunteers have already been helping Israeli high school students learn English—now they’re being good listeners too

Israel Connect matches Israeli teens with North American mentors over Zoom to practise their English and chat.

Israel high school students who are caught up in the country’s national trauma after the Oct. 7 attacks are finding warm listeners, and improving their English with the help of Canadian volunteers.

“Many of our students are experiencing depression and anxiety,” said Sarah Gordon, a former teacher in Ottawa who started Israel Connect, a weekly virtual meeting between a high school student in Israel and a mentor in North America to help students perfect their English.

“Everyone in Israel knows someone who was killed in the initial attack or has died in the fighting or has a family member in the reserves who has been called up,” Gordon said. “Many of our students feel that they have no one to talk to, to confide in, to express how they are feeling.  Thus, we have been training our volunteers to become active listeners as well as teachers.”

Rietta Floom, a tutor from Winnipeg is in her second year as a volunteer with Israel Connect.

Her current Grade 9 student lives in northern Israel and goes to school in Tiberias.  She “has talked about her father, a reservist, being called up, coming home and being called up again. She has told me that her family is looking forward to celebrating her brother’s upcoming bar mitzvah – and she reported that her family is building a safe room in their apartment.”

“We were advised to avoid voicing opinions, keep to the mundane and let our students lead the conversation,” Floom said.

Floom and fellow Winnipeg mentor Tannis Mindell point out that you don’t have to have been an educator to participate as an Israel Connect mentor—nor speak Hebrew.  And there is little preparation required.

All that is necessary is to commit to a weekly, 45-minute Zoom session with the student. Every Thursday, the Israel Connect organizers send out a lesson plan and an assigned reading. After the tutor and mentor go over pronunciation and the meaning of new words, they chat about any number of subjects

Floom says that because she has been to Israel, she has also been able to talk to her student about areas of the country that the student hasn’t seen yet.

“We talk a lot about life here in Canada, too,” she continues. “During one session, I turned my computer around to show her the snow in the backyard.”

Mindell, a former chairperson of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation, was looking for a volunteer opportunity, when she heard about Israel Connect from her sister-in-law in Ottawa. She has found the work to be so gratifying that she is currently helping to recruit new mentors from Winnipeg. 

“It was a delight working with my student last year,” she says.

Sarah Gordon founded the organization in 2013 in Ottawa. She was inspired by a friend in Israel – a teacher who had recently made aliyah. 

“She was teaching in a really challenging neighbourhood,” Gordon recalls. “She felt that if I could help a student for just 45 minutes a day with his English, it could really make a difference.”

She points out that while the language of Israel is Hebrew, the language of business is English. 

Universities and high-paying jobs require a high level of English language proficiency, the Israel Connects website notes. However, it’s “virtually impossible” for 30 or 40 students in a classroom to engage in English conversations and language learning programs outside the classroom are very expensive.

Gordon reached out to a friend in Ottawa to chat with two students of her Israeli friend to help them improve their English language skills. The students’ English language skills improved to such an extent that the friend in Israel began referring more students and before long, other teachers in her school began appealing to Gordon to help as well.

Soon after, Israel’s ministry of education came calling and proposed a partnership with Gordon’s new program which she had now named Israel Connect.    

Having seen the impact that the volunteers were having on the students, Gordon decided to expand the informal effort into a serious program, with the help of the ministry.

 Israel Connect has become the largest external provider of services to Israel’s Department of Education—helping 14- and 15-year-olds perfect their English simply by chatting once a week with a mentor via Zoom.

Initially, Gordon recruited some members of her synagogue to serve as mentors and tutors, then friends and friends of friends in the Ottawa area.

Within a couple of years though, the volume of students and mentors that Israel Connect was dealing with required Gordon to quit her teaching job and dedicate herself entirely to the initiative.

In just over a decade, she reports, Israel Connect has registered remarkable growth. Starting with a handful of volunteers in Ottawa, the program has grown almost entirely by word of mouth and today there are 600 mentors, matched with 600 students.

Israel Connect has a staff of four and Gordon remains involved in fundraising, recruiting mentors and schools in Israel, curriculum development and program evaluation.

 For information on becoming a volunteer, visit