Standing tall and flanked by blue and white flags, the man behind the podium fixes his gaze on a spot somewhere on the horizon. This framed poster of Theodor Herzl declaring, "The Jews who will it, will have their state" is one of many adorning the whitewashed walls of Ulpan Etzion, Israel's first and, considered by many the foremost, institution for Hebrew language instruction.
The ulpan is due to mark its 60th birthday next year; but instead of gearing up for celebrations, the atmosphere among students and staff at the center's 118th semester is one of melancholy. By next week, the picture of Herzl will have to find another home, and the bedrooms and communal bathrooms will be deserted when the ulpan's Baka campus closes its doors.
The global financial crisis has taken its toll on the Jewish Agency, which is cutting its budget by $45 million, forcing it to end the lease on the historic Baka campus and transfer the program to the Beit Canada absorption center in Armon Hanatziv.
"We were all in shock. We didn't believe that anyone could decide this. We know that we have a good thing here and thought that is the last thing anyone would do," says one of the Hebrew teachers. "We understand the financial problems, but I am very worried about the transfer. It's not just moving the program, it's about the place, too. It's an institution."
The Jewish Agency maintains that far from signaling the end of Etzion, the program will continue on the new site with improved facilities. Its claims, however, are falling on deaf ears of many staff and students who believe that the move is more than physical and that the ulpan's unique atmosphere, which has attracted thousands of young Jews from across the world, will be lost.
Established in 1949, shortly after the State of Israel was founded, Etzion was the first Hebrew ulpan in the country where, under the management of Mordechai Kamerat, it set a model for Hebrew language education that was used across Israel. Today it is the only absorption center in Israel specifically designed for young, single new olim, who must be between ages 21 and 35 and hold a bachelor's degree to qualify for a place. Staff and students say that the intimate atmosphere on the Baka campus, combined with its central location and high quality of teaching, have made it a sought-after destination.
"If there wasn't an institution like this, I wouldn't have made aliya," says Jonathan Goldberg from Scotland, who has been learning Hebrew in the campus's final semester, following in the footsteps of cousins who also studied there. "A lot of Israel's success is supplemented by the brains and minds of people from other countries. This place allows them to come here on their own terms."
The current students are determined to make the most of their last days at the ulpan, keeping warm in the Jerusalem winter by dancing to a soundtrack of Israeli folk and modern pop music blaring from a CD player in the courtyard between the low-rise apartments. But others, like Elizabeth Bryant from Canada, have their minds on more pressing matters such as securing a job and a place to live once the doors close on 14 December.
"I felt like my whole world was turned around when I got here, but I have no regrets. A lot of that comes down to the fact that I had a roof over my head and food. I'm very grateful I'm in Etzion and that such a place exists," says the 28-year-old who, like Goldberg, intends to move to Tel Aviv once the term is over. "I'm surprised it's going so quietly. People make such a fuss about things in this country."
ETZION WAS downsized exactly one year ago when it vacated the college-style dormitories, communal rooms and gardens of the northern campus after the lease expired with the Carmelite Church which owned the property. The Jewish Agency did not renew the lease, and it was subsequently sold to property developers.
Nevertheless, none of the staff expected that they would be leaving the remaining campus - consisting of classrooms and apartments spread across half a dozen low-rise buildings - so soon. "It hurts me that in our country, with such a short history, it's possible to cut down something like this so quickly. It's been here for 60 years. How is it possible to just give it up? My concern is that the good thing that we have here will be harmed," says one member of staff.
The Jewish Agency emphasizes that Ulpan Etzion is not being "shut down" but is simply being moved to a new location.
"Ulpan Etzion is one of the best ulpanim. It provides a huge number of olim with Hebrew and a good atmosphere. There is a demand to be part of Ulpan Etzion, and I'm happy to say it's increasing every day," Eli Cohen, the Jewish Agency's director of immigration and absorption, told In Jerusalem. "The move from its present location to Beit Canada isn't something to worry about. You could worry if it was moving to Nahariya or another place. We will continue to do what we did at Ulpan Etzion but with more facilities and greater comfort."
Etzion's buildings may be aging and feel like a refrigerator in the winter months, but the pockmarked pink Jerusalem stone possesses a strong character in contrast to Beit Canada, situated among the homogeneous apartment blocks of Armon Hanatziv. Also known as East Talpiot, the neighborhood is considerably younger than Baka. It was founded in 1973 on land captured during the Six Day War and was subsequently annexed to Israel.
Even if the program and teachers are transferred smoothly, some fear that the atmosphere won't be the same at Beit Canada, which is far from the city center and typically has a different demographic, including many couples and families.
"I'm not sure people will want to go there. Some people come to Jerusalem for five months just because of Ulpan Etzion; otherwise, they would go straight to Tel Aviv," believes Argentinean Ariel Kogan, who studied at Etzion until this June. He adds that the location could also be a disincentive for religious olim compared to Baka, which is home to a wide selection of synagogues.
"Armon Hanatziv is a beautiful place, but it's completely cut off; you need to buy a bus ticket to get anywhere. As an oleh hadash, you need to be connected," says Joel Mack, from Leeds, England, who is staying in Jerusalem after he finishes ulpan.
Sami Madem, 28, from Istanbul, agrees: "Baka is a very nice place; the students benefit from the influence of the neighborhood, the silence, the nice people. And Emek Refaim is five minutes away, and the city center is close."
Former graduates also vouch for the location as being a key success factor in the Etzion experience. "I left the ulpan with amazing Spanish and terrible Hebrew," says one woman who studied at Etzion in 1972, where she met her Argentinean husband. "The moment it moves to Beit Canada, it's in a bedroom neighborhood; it's a depressing environment."
"I agree that it is nicer to stay in the center of the city, but the accommodation and physical conditions at Beit Canada are better than Ulpan Etzion," responds Cohen, who adds that 250 of the 300 beds at Beit Canada will be reserved for the new Ulpan Etzion program, compared to 90 at the Baka campus.
A new model of "community absorption" will be adopted for families and couples who traditionally arrive at Beit Canada, assisting them with renting private apartments. "The capital of Israel and the Jewish world is Jerusalem," says Cohen, "and we have to think about the entire capital, not just the four of five kilometers around the city center. We have to empower other neighborhoods like East Talpiot, too."
Cohen says he wants to hold a big celebration for Etzion's 60th anniversary in September 2009 and will be a partner with the ulpan's director, Anat Uzzan, and ulpan graduates. One staff member says she hopes to hold a conference with graduates from the last six decades, focusing on the theme of human wealth. "But how will we celebrate at Beit Canada? It will be strange," she says.
Kogan has been coordinating efforts to save the ulpan from being uprooted prematurely and is campaigning to keep it open for at least one more semester. After dinner was served last Thursday, he and some 30 staff and students from the 1970s to the current semester convened in the ulpan's communal dining room to brainstorm ideas for an eleventh-hour attempt to save the campus. Current students practiced their new vocabulary with veterans, who experienced a belated taste of ulpan life in the form of single-serving portions of jam spread on processed white bread, and black coffee in Styrofoam cups.
"We're not against the Jewish Agency, but what we want from them is the time to organize," says Kogan, adding that he believes the decision to transfer the ulpan is "logical but not correct. "If they would have told us in advance, the crew could have prepared for six months to adapt to the new facilities; it would be a different reality."
Campaigners are trying to raise funds from Etzion alumni and are reaching out with a Web site (www.ulpanetzion.com) and Facebook group, which numbered nearly 400 members within a week of going on line, but they only have a narrow time frame between the Jewish Agency's announcement and the closure.
"Give us a few more months and there's huge potential," says Kogan. "Before I left the ulpan, I got a job in hi-tech and I now work 100 percent in Hebrew. My klita [absorption] has been very successful, and it's all because of Ulpan Etzion."