Question: What is a boy from North Dakota with a German last name, doing, teaching English, in a Hebrew School, in Bogota, Colombia?
Now, that’s a good question!
I will fill you in on the North Dakota part later, maybe in another book, but for now….
I arrived in Bogota, December of 1974 with a 90-day tourist visa. I had boarded a plane in LaGuardia airport, New York, on Christmas Eve, while it was snowing, I headed first to Miami, waited a few hours in the airport, then got on AeroCondor at 5 in the morning with its destination to Bogota, Colombia. Of course, it had to stop at Barranquilla first, and as we sat on the tarmac, you could feel the tropical heat creeping up into the plane. Christmas morning we landed at El Dorado airport, to be greeted by a brilliant December Bogota sun, cacti, flowers. As we drove out El Dorado avenue there were cows grazing in the median.
The Centro Colombo Americano
Within two weeks, beginning the new year of 1975, I was offered a job to teach English at the Centro Colombo Americano in the center of Bogotá. Mrs. Myriam Wallenberg from the AIM, wife of artist Enrique Wallenberg (known for his sketches of the Candelaria), taught me my teacher-training class and soon I was earning 35 Colombian pesos (a dollar) an hour!
There is no better way to learn a subject than by teaching it. Before long I understood the grammar of my native language and could begin to teach it with confidence.
When I was a student at Yale University in the States I was inspired to start studying Modern Hebrew, so now that I met a Jewish lady working at the Colombo Americano, I asked Tamara Horowitz de Ganeden (may she rest in peace) who was working in the administration at the Colombo if she could find somebody to teach me Hebrew. She contacted Ronit Chalem, and soon we had a deal: Ronit taught me Hebrew and, in exchange, I taught her English. I learned some basic Hebrew with her. (I hope she learned some English).
How would you like to teach at the Hebrew School?
“So how would you like to teach English in the Colegio Hebreo?” Tamara Horowitz asked me after my second year of teaching at the Centro Colombo Americano.
Colegio Hebreo? Hebrew school? In Bogota? Really?
I came from New York City and knew that Jews lived in New York and in Israel… but Bogota, Colombia? NO IDEA! (You have to understand that many gringos are ignorant and think that they live in the center of the universe, and therefore have little idea of what happens outside of the U.S.).
Well, the idea was fascinating, so I decided to go for the interview…………
DR. JOSE VICENTE AVELLA
That first day at the Colombo Hebreo, in 1978, I caught a glimpse of a rabbi with a beard and an accordion playing and singing along with Batia Mikler in a kindergarden classroom where Ronit was teaching.
The rector, Dr. Jose Vicente Avella, offered me the job. But I wasn’t so sure: I was teaching business executives at the Centro Colombo Americano in the center of Bogota.
Let me explain: business executives want to learn English. They come to class for that purpose. They come with their books and notebooks in hand. They do their homework. They sit down in their seats and don’t get up unless you give them permission. They raise their hands when they have a question. They don’t interrupt you when you are speaking. Do you get the picture?
So: Did I want to switch from teaching business executives to teaching high school students? I didn’t think so. I told Dr. Avella, “thank you, but no thank you.”
Yet there are events that carry us into purposes that are beyond our own plans and ideas. (Sound like something out of “Lord of the Rings”)? My experience has taught me that God usually knows what He is doing, even when we don’t think he does. More often than not, we don’t know what we are doing. Sometimes we are slow.
The Centro Americano soon obliged me to teach more hours, forcing me to resign because of other commitments during the day. I got a job at SENA, teaching SENA executives there. That lasted for a year. During two years, Dr. Avella kept calling me every three months. Was I ready to teach at the Hebrew school? Thank you, but no thank you.
Then, like the ignorant gringo that I was, I decided to go to teach English at the Universidad Pedagógica. (Should the prophet Daniel willingly walk into a lions’ den, or is he is thrown there against his will?)
The classrooms filled with some 40 insolent students studying at night became unbearable during the first week. Monday of the second week, I found the classroom door locked. Nobody had a key. “Sorry Prof. It looks like we don’t have class.”
Second night, same scenario: Again, classroom locked, no key, no class. “Why don’t you get the message?” one student asked me. This time I could feel a menacing hate in his voice.
The third day I went to the Dean’s office and told him what was happening. “Well,” he said, “the students did an investigation concerning you and found that you belong to two university Christian organizations and therefore have decided that you are a ‘persona non-grata’ here at the university.” Not true. I did not belong to either group, though I was aware of them.
Now I was in trouble! No job. No contract. Pretty soon I might have NO VISA to stay in Colombia, and the elderly lady who had founded our Christian center, Monte Sion in Chia, told me: “If you want to stay in Colombia, you had better pray!” So pray I did! There are some moments in life when we really need to “call out to God!”
You have no choice!
And I kid you not. The next day, out of the blue I received a call from Dr. Avella of the Colegio Hebreo (He was not aware of my situation. He hadn’t called me in six months!) “You have no choice,” he told me. You HAVE to teach here. You tell us the salary you want, the hours you want to teach. You teach what you want to teach. But you HAVE to teach here!”
Mmmmm. Is this destiny? Could anything be any clearer? Did I have a choice?