It’s All Hebrew to Me

It’s All Hebrew to Me


Every student faces some difficulties adapting to academic life during their first year at the Faculty of Law. But the difficulties are amplified for students whose first language is not Hebrew. Difficulties writing papers and reading and understanding legal language are sometimes accompanied by challenges in the area of social and cultural adaption. The mentoring project for students whose first language is not Hebrew offers a broad-based response to these difficulties. The results on the ground speak for themselves.


-Renana Herman-


Atalia Markowitz

“When I started my first year, I didn’t have laptop,” recalls Atalia Markowitz, a student at the Faculty who immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands after finishing high school. “I used to stay late at the university every day writing papers. After all the libraries closed, I would to the computers in the corridor until 10 p.m. One day I called Tom, my mentor, in tears because I wasn’t even close to finishing my paper. It was the middle of winter, but he came over at 11 p.m. to encourage me with a cup of hot tea. It was really charming.”


The mentoring project for students whose first language is not Hebrew was established nine years ago on the initiative of Professor Eyal Zamir. It was initially run by Dr. Adam Hofri-Winogradow, and now Professor Guy Harpaz with the assistance of Keren Ben-Zvi  are responsible for the academic management of the program. The project receives funding from the Gilbert Foundation and provides support for about 25 students a year.


Atalia Markowitz


The goal is to help students with language difficulties, and in some cases cultural and social difficulties, to make it through their first year at the Faculty of Law. “We try to identify in advance first-year students whose level of Hebrew is limiting their ability to realize their potential,” Professor Harpaz explains. “In most cases, these students are new immigrants or come from the Arab sector. Before the beginning of the academic year, we identify about 15 outstanding mentors who offer a combination of academic ability and strong emotional intelligence. During the orientation days we gather the new students who are suited to the project and match them up with mentors. After that it all depends on the chemistry between the mentor and the mentee. The mentees have their mentor’s telephone number and can meet with them or even send papers for them to look over before submitting them. The project offers a meaningful support system at no cost. I would be glad if more first-year students took advantage of the opportunity.”


The mentors’ perspective
Atalia Perry, a student at the Faculty who is working as a mentor in the project for the second year, offers some more insights into the work: “The goal is to help the student understand court rulings, read them, and write papers. We try to provide the basic skills that are much easier for students with strong capabilities in Hebrew to develop. The mentoring includes face-to-face meetings as well as help in proofreading and drafting before the submission of papers. At the beginning of the year I meet with the mentee to provide some tips and suggestions and to coordinate our expectations. After that, I work according to the mentee’s interests and the papers he or she needs to submit. Some mentees ask for a regular weekly meeting, while others prefer to contact me on as-needed basis.”


Although the project focuses mainly on academic support, students with social difficulties have a particularly strong need for the mentor’s support, and the mentoring relationship extends into other areas. Atalia explains: “I always emphasize that they should feel free to talk to me about any matter, not only academic problems. The idea is to facilitate their adaptation in general. I also encourage them to find study partners when they need to write papers, which I believe helps them both socially and academically.” She notes that the level of Hebrew varies considerably. “I speak to all of them in Hebrew, but some mentees have a poor command of the language, while others face problems mainly when it comes to style and grammar. I can see the gaps particularly clearly when I proofread their papers. The linguistic level can seriously impair the quality of the paper. Usually the mentoring relationship is more intensive at the beginning of the year, after which the students learn to get by without our support. Sometimes I even experience empty nest syndrome.”


Atalia Perry

The mentees’ perspective 
“From my standpoint it was amazing,” Markowitz recalls. “It helped me so much. When I began my studies I found legal language very difficult. On top of that we had long reading lists and lots of papers to write. I am not used to reading Hebrew and my vocabulary isn’t particularly large, so it took me a long time. I also found it hard to plan my time. I knew things weren’t going to be easy before I began, but I didn’t understand just how hard it would get.” Markowitz claims that “the two mentors they matched me up with saved me. For the first six months my mentor was Tom, a student at the Faculty. He coped with my crying and provided emotional support during crises. Later in the year, after I had begun to get used to things, Na’ama mentored me and provided intensive support proofreading my papers. As the year progressed I began to understand how things work and I didn’t get so stressed. Naturally the mentoring relationship became less intensive and we mainly communicated by phone. I sent papers to Na’ama for her to check the spelling and style. In my second year Na’ama officially continued to work as my mentor, but I felt less need to send her drafts of my papers. Thanks to the support I received, I felt that I’d reached the point where I had the tools to do it by myself.”


Atalia Perry


The first steps were the hardest. Markowitz is convinced that “without the mentors’ corrections, my grades would have been significantly lower. Apart from that, not everyone can check a paper in law. The language differs from other fields and it takes a long time to proofread material, so I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help from people outside the Faculty. In this respect the project was very useful for me and helped me make real progress.”


Impressive achievements and success stories
“The project was developed in response to statistics showing a relatively high dropout rate among immigrant students, and even more so among Arab students,” Professor Harpaz explains. “The impression was that they faced not only academic difficulties, but also additional difficulties relating to their age, level of maturity, and distinct social identity. In the past the project received considerable financial backing and we were also able to fund social activities, a scholarship for outstanding students, and a scholarship based on economic criteria. Today the assistance is more modest and we concentrate mainly on academic assistance. We are aware of the additional problems, however, and we do our best to provide a holistic response.

Professor Harpaz adds that the project has scored some impressive achievements. “In many respects we are a university-wide leader in this field. Any time the Dean of Students, other faculties, or the student union want to introduce a similar project they come to learn from our experience.


Professor Guy Harpaz
Credit: D Guthrie

Unfortunately, some mentees don’t take full advantage of the project. This is a pity, because they have access to a high-quality, committed, ideological, and value-based service that provides tailor-made assistance free of charge. Personally I would like them to make more use of our outstanding mentors.” Harpaz notes that they have been some exceptional success stories. “Several women students from the Former Soviet Union came to the Faculty one year. During their first week of studies they could hardly string a sentence together in Hebrew. Eventually they graduated with averages that I’m not sure I would be able to get today. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. I can’t claim that our mentees form the majority of the names of the Dean’s list of outstanding students. Even so, we have our success stories and some students receive very meaningful help. The bottom line is that we are satisfied with the project’s outcomes.”