The Jerusalem Municipality plans to give its two Hebrew ulpans makeovers, which sources within the ulpans believe may lead to reduced attendance, elimination of levels and eventually their closure.

The municipality says the overhaul is in everyone’s interest, but others claim it’s just a response to budget pressures.

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The municipality operates Beit Mitchell on Rehov Sokolov and Beit Ha’am on Rehov Bezalel. These ulpans cater to two types of students: new olim, who do not pay; and others, who pay as much as NIS 900 a month.

All new immigrants receive vouchers that pay for five months of full-time ulpan studies or 10 months of part-time classes. But various municipalities provide further incentives for new immigrants to live in their cities. In Jerusalem, the municipality provides an extra 100 hours of ulpan classes free of charge.

The municipality would not say what changes it plans to introduce, but sources within the ulpans say the plan is to separate those students who pay from those who have vouchers. According to those sources, the new two-track system will not allow the ulpans to continue at their present capacity.

Beit Mitchell, for example, has eight levels of instruction, with a total enrollment of more than 300 students. But at the higher levels, 80 percent of the students pay tuition. If non-paying (new immigrant) students are separated from the tuition payers, there will not be enough of them to make up their own class.

According to a statement issued by the municipality, the plan is to have the changes go into effect when the next academic year starts, after Succot.

The municipality, together with the Education and the Immigrant Absorption ministries, decided to reexamine the way it operates its ulpans and concluded that they need to be restructured in a way that will consume fewer resources, the statement said.

The municipality also said the changes were decided on only after an evaluation in which all the parties, including the teaching staff, were involved.

But many ulpan-goers fear the worst and have heard similar concerns from their teachers.

Reuven Tradburks, who made aliya from Canada last August and has been going to Beit Mitchell since September, says that most people only attend an ulpan as long as it is paid for.

An ulpan is a crucial step in the acculturation of new immigrants, he says. “These are mature, accomplished people who have picked up and moved and suffer tremendous displacement. Besides the language, which is really crucial, we can share our feelings of lack of rootedness and being swept around in a tempest. It’s extremely helpful.”

Clara Zilberstein, who made aliya from Los Angeles in December and has been attending ulpan since her arrival, says the ulpans are “the best things going in this country. It’s not just a Hebrew course, but you also learn about culture, the ways of the land, the Israeli holidays.”

Her husband, Steve Bailey, says, “Had it not been free, we would have loved to attend but wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”

According to Bailey, it’s in the government’s interest to keep the ulpans as they are. “New olim need to work. No matter what your skills are, you still have to be able to converse. If the government is encouraging people to come and help contribute to the economy, the most basic thing the government needs to provide is the ability to communicate,” he says.
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