Thanks to Rena Cohen, some third-grade students in Beit Shemesh are reading "The Cat in the Hat."
Beit Shemesh is an Israeli city whose public schools, like those throughout the country, were informed recently that the government, because of security expenses, had no budget for English-language books.
Cohen is a biotechnology administrator and Jewish activist who lives in the Washington suburbs, and was upset that Israeli children wouldn’t learn English.
So she (and her sister and brother-in-law, educators in Israel) decided to provide the books that the Israeli government could not.
The result is the just-launched Books for Israel Project (www.edu-negev.gov.il/bs/b4i), conducted under the auspices of her synagogue, Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Md., which matches up Israeli schools with Jewish groups abroad that want to send books. Some 80 Israeli schools, Jewish and Arab and Druze, have signed up, including the JCC in Manhattan and the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.
In the U.S., Hebrew schools and synagogues, Jewish community centers and Jewish federations, and a few churches have conducted book drives.
The books are shipped to Israel by U.S. Postal Service book rate or carried over by tourists.
Cohen calls the cutoff of funds for education and other non-security parts of the Israeli economy one of "the hidden costs" of the ongoing Palestinian violence against Israel. "Sectors such as teachers’ [salaries] were hit really hard," she says.
Cohen says the books, for third grade through high school, help prepare Israeli students to compete in the international marketplace.
"English is the key," she says, adding that her biotech field is typical. "If you don’t read English, you don’t succeed in that field. You take any field, it’s the same thing."
Cohen is looking for children’s stories, novels, any type of clean literature. "We want tons of books: anything that a kid would enjoy reading." (She can be reached at 202 255-5959.)
She conducted her own book drive at the Rockville JCC, collecting 800 pounds of books. One supporter bought a complete set of Dr. Seuss.
Cohen’s books were shipped to Beit Shemesh and are already in use.
"The Cat in the Hat" is being read in a third-grade class, and will go into the public school’s library, she says. Without her project, Cohen says, "they wouldn’t have English books to read."