Two Jerusalem ulpans used primarily by new immigrants are in danger of having their doors shut come January 1, if a funding dispute between the municipality and the Education Ministry is not sorted out beforehand.
The two Hebrew-language schools - Ulpan Ha'Oleh and Ulpan Beit Ha'Am - which assist in the education and immersion of hundreds of new immigrants each year, have been caught in the crossfire of a budgetary shoving match over teachers' salaries inside the schools.
The ulpans' teachers are officially employed by the municipality but receive funding for their salaries from the Education Ministry.
Masha Novikov, a deputy mayor who holds the municipality's absorption and immigration portfolio, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the Education Ministry had announced in September that they would stop paying the teachers' salaries at the start of 2010, due to their own budget constraints.
According to Novikov, the Education Ministry had offered to staff the ulpans with teachers from their ministry - who are not employed by the municipality - in lieu of the funding for the present teachers' salaries.
"They said they didn't have the money to pay for the teachers' salaries anymore and that they were going to cut off the funding," Novikov said. "That's what has put the ulpans in danger of closing."
According to an Education Ministry source, however, the Jerusalem Municipality gave his office an ultimatum which rejected the Education Ministry's offer and stated that if the funding wasn't provided for salaries, the municipality would close down the ulpans.
"They want the Education Ministry to continue paying salaries," the source said. "They basically want us to give them the money - which is money that we don't have - and ask no questions. I've never heard of such a thing."
While the two sides continued to point the blame at one another for the impasse on Thursday, Novikov said she was trying to have the matter brought to a hearing at City Hall this Sunday, and that the sooner the problem was discussed in front of all the council members, the sooner it would be solved.
"It's a serious issue," she said. "And I'm hoping that [Mayor Nir Barkat] will intervene as well."
Students and teachers from the two ulpans told the Post on Thursday that they were watching the situation develop with deep concern over the possibility that no solution would be found - potentially forcing them to pay for the ulpan classes themselves, even though they are entitled to them for free as new immigrants.
"This is a service that takes new immigrants, some with an obsolete level of Hebrew and no familiarity of Israeli society, and gives them both," Stanley Cohen, a new immigrant from London, England told the Post on Thursday.
Cohen described the potential closing of the ulpans as "a terrible shame" and "a betrayal of the tenets of Am Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh" - that all of Israel is responsible for one another.
"Of all the quintessential factors which lead to a smooth and satisfactory absorption of new immigrants into the mainstream of Israeli society, none is greater than the ulpan system in all of its ramifications," Cohen added.
A teacher from one of the ulpans who asked to remain anonymous, told the Post that in addition to the prospect of harming the new immigrants, the current feud had put her and her colleagues' jobs on the line.
"No one knows what's going to happen," she said. "But it would be awful for everyone if the ulpans had to close."
Other government sources close to the dispute told the Post on Thursday that they believed a solution would be found next week, essentially saving the ulpans from closure at the last minute.
"We're upset with the situation overall," a source from the Absorption Ministry said on Thursday. "Any situation that could potentially harm new immigrants is one that we find unacceptable."
"Nonetheless, our ministry is also involved in solving this dispute, and we expect progress on the issue as early as Sunday."
"I hope that's true," the ulpan teacher said in response. "Because everyone who could be affected by this - teachers and students - is quite worried."