Tisha Herrera

Tisha Herrera in front of her class at Roi Klein School in Netanya, Israel.

Tisha Herrera isn’t the typical candidate for Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, an immersive and long-term educational program for people ages 18-30. Her father is Ndee (Apache) and her mother’s heritage is a combination of Greek and Spanish. Six years ago, her mother discovered her Jewish ancestry through a DNA test.

“It turns out that my grandmother knew about it and kept it a secret,” Herrera said.

As a teenager, before she knew she was Jewish, Herrera had vacationed in Israel. After the DNA test, she spent several months in Tel Aviv before returning to finish her degree in communications at George Mason University in Virginia.

Before joining Masa, Herrera lived in South Korea teaching English to kids from elementary through high school. She was happy and learning Korean, yet another language for her after Mandarin and Spanish. But she felt that God wanted her to return to Israel.

“If I’m being honest, I was a bit hesitant to say yes immediately. I was establishing myself in South Korea — and life was good,” she said.

She was receiving a lot of emails from Masa at the time. Before making her decision, she went to stay with her parents in Gold Canyon in Pinal County.

Masa prides itself on offering young people an “authentic, unmediated and challenging journey into Israeli society, culture, politics and history,” according to its website. Since being founded in 2004 by the government of Israel and The Jewish Agency, it has brought 180,000 people to Israel from more than 60 countries. It assists participants financially and logistically depending on individual need and experience.

She decided to take the plunge. It would be her third year of teaching and working with kids, “and I feel like three is a good number and if the Lord wants me to continue teaching, then I’ll do it with Masa,” she said.

It was the best decision she could have made, she said. “I love all my kids. They’re hilarious and so intelligent — I’m just honestly so blessed that I have them.”

Teaching English is a way to remove social and cultural barriers, she said. That’s what she does for elementary students at Roi Klein School, a religious school for observant Jewish students in Netanya, Israel.

“My students are so loving, and so many of them run up to me and jump into my arms. They make me laugh on a daily basis,” she said.

The majority of her students speak at least some English already. They’re fascinated by her facility with Korean and Mandarin. She’s still learning Hebrew and the kids like to test her vocabulary.

“They love to hear me count and say, ‘Good morning’ and just literally anything! It makes me so happy,” she said. She calls her host teacher at the school her “lighthouse” and considers their relationship almost like mother and daughter. The sad thought of leaving her and the children has caused Herrera to consider extending her contract another six months when it’s up on July 2.

The principal is kind but shy and though he doesn’t speak English well, she has been practicing with him. Usually, there would be another Masa fellow like her at the school but she’s the only one now. Still, she said it’s better this way. She can work one-on-one with the students and get to know them.

With no more than 10 students in a class, “we can vibe together. There’s no pressure and we can make jokes. And these kids, they just crack me up,” she said.

Masa pays for her food and board in the program; she lives in a house with three roommates but has her own room.

“I’m 28 and I haven’t had a roommate for a very long time. So the adjustment period was … interesting. But I think we’ve worked it out,” she said.

Herrera, who said she’s “just as Jewish as everyone here and feels like a complete Jew,” recognized that the way she experiences faith is a bit unique.

“The relationship that I have with the Lord sometimes can offend people,” she said. She’s very curious about other religions and reads the New Testament. She also reads the Hebrew Bible daily, which brings her a sense of peace and makes her feel whole, she said.

“I don’t think anything should be off limits necessarily, because it’s your relationship with God, however you decide to define that,” she said.

Still, she tried to fly under the radar to avoid making waves. She kept her religious beliefs and curiosity to herself until someone found a gift with a cross on it that her parents gave her.

Because Herrera also identifies with Christianity and “loves Jesus as a Jew,” though she is not a Messianic Jew, she has faced accusations from someone who suspected her of anti-Jewish feelings. That couldn’t be further from the truth, she explained.

“I’m a Zionist. I love Israel with all of my heart and I love the Lord with all of my heart,” she said.

While her views are unconventional, her colleagues at the school have not raised any reservations.

“They know that I’m Jewish and that’s all that matters, because that should be all that matters, right? It’s something that I pray about every day. I love the Lord but I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t know exactly why he wanted me to come here. I think he wanted me to meet certain people, be at the school, interact with the people in my community and be kind to them. If he wants me to make aliyah, I will.

“People in foreign countries have been surprised that there are Americans like me and I tell them we’re not all the same. There is no look to Americans — just like there’s no look to Jewish people. We’re all unique and different,” she said. JN

To learn more about Masa, visit masaisrael.org.