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Teacher fulfills ‘bucket list’ wish in Jerusalem
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Teacher fulfills ‘bucket list’ wish in Jerusalem

Octogenarian tutors kids in Israel, feels ‘20 years younger’

Terry Polaner, left, and her cousin Judy Kugelmass celebrate Purim together in Jerusalem. Photos courtesy Terry Polaner
Terry Polaner, left, and her cousin Judy Kugelmass celebrate Purim together in Jerusalem. Photos courtesy Terry Polaner

As she approached her 79th birthday last Aug. 7, Terry Polaner felt troubled, and it took the inspiration of a Hollywood movie to snap her out of it.

“I was very depressed,” she said. “When I told my daughter Phyllis, she said, ‘Make your bucket list.’”

In the 2007 film The Bucket List, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play two men of a certain age who draw up wish lists of things to do before they “kick the bucket.”

“When I made my list, number one was to teach in Israel,” Polaner told NJ Jewish News.

So the West Orange resident went to her computer and discovered “hundreds of websites” that offer volunteer opportunities in Israel “for people 18 to 49.” After her initial search, she felt excluded.

“Who the hell wants a 79-year-old woman?” she asked herself.

Undeterred, she contacted Natasha Gluzman, the Israel emissary at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, who suggested she reach out in Jerusalem to Amir Shacham, director of Israel operations for United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

Shacham in turn put Polaner in touch with an agency called Volunteer Jerusalem — and that was the key; through the organization — whose website promises a “meaningful and educational community service providing participants with an immersive and personal connection to the city of Jerusalem and its residents” — she became a tutor at Mekor Chaim, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka.

It was a perfect fit for a woman who began a long teaching career at a public school in Astoria, Queens. After moving to Livingston in 1959, she worked for five years at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, 20 years at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, and five years at the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County. She taught kindergarten, second grade, and fifth grade.

Her volunteer stint in Israel took place in February and March. She rented an apartment in Jerusalem, and “for four days a week I shlepped myself up six blocks of hills to the school where I taught.”

Her assignment was to work one-on-one with students, teaching English as a second language in individual 40-minute sessions.

“I sat with a dictionary and a pad, drawing pictures, because I don’t speak Hebrew,” said Polaner. “What I did was an asset to kids who don’t have any English spoken in their homes. They are drowning.”

Polaner said she takes great satisfaction in working with Jewish kids anywhere. “But in Israel it was very different,” she said. “The kids are part of the land. In America, this is still a Christian country. So, to work with people who live there is the most wonderful feeling.”

Polaner’s message to people of any age, especially Baby Boomers and beyond, is to find new meaning in life by volunteering in Israel. She recommends getting started by logging on to two websites, www.volunteerjerusalem.com and www.skillvolunteerisrael.org.

With a son, two daughters, and seven grandchildren in the United States, Polaner is not prepared to make a fulltime commitment to living in Israel. But she hopes to return next fall or winter, and teach youngsters there again.

“I am happier about reaching 80 than I was about 79. I’ll tell you why. Because I came back from Israel 20 years younger,” she said.

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