[Originally published January, 2000.]
Of the thousands who have passed through the classrooms of the Hebrew University's Rothberg School for Overseas Students, two inconspicuous middle-aged students a year and a half ago may prove to have had the greatest impact: Canadian philanthropist Charles Bronfman and his wife, Andrea.
For two years the Bronfmans had hired a private Hebrew tutor while summering in Israel. In the summer of 1998, they decided to devote their mornings to ulpan (Level Bet) at the Hebrew University. Diligent, punctual, and quiet, according to teachers and administrators in the program, they also left the school with a little gift: $3.2 million spread over five years to improve the quality of instruction and foster American students' interaction with their Israeli peers.
The result is a pilot program this fall, SfaTarbut ('Language/Culture'), that pairs young American students in the beginning Hebrew levels with Israeli students who serve as tutors and, more importantly, as friends. One tutor took his tutee to the Interior Ministry to take care of business - so there's a practical aspect to the program as well as the help the Americans receive in navigating the pitfalls of Israeli life.
Students in more advanced levels have a program of Mifgashim ('Encounters') with representatives of various sectors of Israeli society. The money also is being used to upgrade multimedia resources for language instruction and to produce state-of-the-art Hebrew instruction materials that can be used by teachers in the Diaspora.
Charles Bronfman declined to comment for the article, referring questions to Janet Aviad, director of Keren Karev, the Israeli vehicle for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
'Since both Andrea and Charles Bronfman believe firmly that the link to Israel of young people from the Diaspora - and the link between Israeli youngsters and Jews of the Diaspora - is vital for the continuity of the Jewish people, one of the keys is the Hebrew language,' Aviad says.
'When one doesn't speak the language of that culture it's hard to have deep conversations or understand one another fully. [The Bronfmans] were very positive toward the ulpan and very grateful for what they learned, but also felt that a lot could be done to improve it.'
Anyone who has studied at the Rothberg School is familiar with the paradox: You spend a year in Israel, but in a North American bubble that mitigates the intensity of the experience. The insularity is such that some of the Americans even refer to the entire Mount Scopus campus as 'Boyar,' the name of the Rothberg School's new building.'
It's not uncommon for American students who start the year with little or no Hebrew to finish the year almost in the same shape, simply because they find themselves with little opportunity to use the language and little incentive to study diligently. There is also, perhaps, a psychological block: In most parts of America, a foreign language is something tedious that you study in the classroom, something you know abstractly that they speak 'over there' but not something you see real people using on a daily basis.
European students on various Rothberg School programs tend to progress more rapidly with Hebrew, perhaps because Europe's polyglot reality has prepared them for the experience or perhaps because they generally don't have the option of falling back on their native tongue.
The Bronfmans' money now may help change that situation. Some 75 North Americans in ulpan levels Alef and Bet have been paired with Israeli university students with whom they meet for two hours a week. The meetings take place off campus, in real-life situations where the students put their Hebrew lessons to use: the supermarket, post office, barbershop, cafe.
As friendships develop, the encounters may take on a more social nature: visits to the tutor's family, hanging out with the tutor's Israeli friends, cruising around and listening to Israeli pop music.
A few Americans dropped out of the tutor program early in the semester, feeling that even two hours a week was an imposition. Those who remained generally speak highly of the program - ranking it, in fact, one of the best experiences of the One Year Program.
'The tutor program is really the greatest experience for me,' says Seth Tuengel, a senior from Portland, Oregon, studying at the University of the Pacific in California. 'I've been abroad and done a lot of traveling and one of my biggest frustrations is not meeting the natives. This [program] is one of the things that will make me not want to go home.'
For many American Jews, a year in Israel at the Rothberg School or a similar program at Tel Aviv University is an obligatory part of their coming of age. Every year some 600 college students come for either a semester or an entire year at Rothberg, 90 percent of them from the US. For many it is not just a year abroad but a year off, a time of parties, personal exploration, and first relationships that may not match the academic intensity of a college year back home but provides learning experiences equally valuable in their own way.
Now, the investment from the Bronfmans is part of an overall effort to make the Rothberg programs more serious and relevant, according to new provost Menahem Milson.
'We always got intelligent students, but a generation ago more of the students came for the Israel experience rather than the academic work,' says Milson, who taught Arabic at the Rothberg School 25 years ago and in recent years served as dean of the Faculty of Humanities. 'We still want to keep that, but we also want to stress the academic side via more rigorous requirements.'
Among the changes in recent years is the addition of several master's programs, including a Master's in Jewish Education program that will debut next year and that Milson thinks can revolutionize Jewish education in the Diaspora by preparing teachers with a command of Hebrew.
Some 350 students from around the world now pursue graduate study at the Rothberg School, only half of them Jewish. Younger students, including new immigrants from Europe, Russia, and South America, attend the school's 'Mechina' college-prep program. Enrollment in the various programs appears to be growing again, Milson said, after leveling off for several years following the terror attacks in the mid-1990s.
Competition from Tel Aviv University, which is developing its programs for overseas students under new university president Itamar Rabinovich, is one catalyst for change at the Hebrew University. 'We are the best and the oldest [school for overseas students], but it's good to face competition,' Milson says. 'You know that the other universities are also trying to attract students from abroad. It brings out the best in all of us.'
Milson previously oversaw many more students in the Faculty of Humanities, but agreed to move over to Rothberg because of the challenge it presented as a virtually autonomous university within the university.
His task now is to integrate Rothberg more fully into the Hebrew University and integrate its students more fully into Israeli life. Graduate students, indeed, are encouraged to attend classes in the regular university if their Hebrew allows. The One Year Program is especially challenging but, Milson hopes, the Language/Culture and Encounters programs will increase the students' sense of engagement with the surrounding society.
'We see it as highly desirable from every point of view that students who come to spend a year or a semester in Jerusalem will have the chance to interact with young Israelis,' Milson says. 'Language skills are just one part of it. There are social and emotional benefits, too, a rapprochement between Israelis and their brethren abroad.'
In Hadassa Gerson's Level Bet classroom, a dozen or so students are learning to add possessives to the preposition 'instead of' - 'instead of' me, 'instead of' you, 'instead of' us. They then do the same with 'like.' 'Have you ever seen this word?' Gerson asks one American woman in the class. 'Sure: 'Who is like you among the mighty, God?' ' she quotes from the prayer book.
All but two of the students in Gerson's class are American or Canadian undergraduates spending a semester or year in Israel; the others are Korean graduate students. All have chosen to take an intensive Hebrew course in the fall semester, which meets for 12 hours of instruction a week instead of the standard eight.
But some admit that their main focus this year is not academic. 'It's hard not to feel like you're on a permanent vacation here,' says Micah Morgovsky, a junior at Syracuse. 'It's hard to do work.'
Others say that they came to Israel more to learn Hebrew than to have an 'Israel experience' per se; they even seem to resent the demands of their other classes - Jewish thought and history, Israeli society, and Middle Eastern politics - and the accompanying reading lists and papers.
'The classes in English aren't that hard but I think they're a waste of my time,' says David Bremer, a senior at the University of Indiana. 'I came here to learn Hebrew.' He has tried segregating himself from the other American students, hanging out with students from Western Europe, Ukraine, and Albania, but the attempt has been self- defeating, as their only common language is English.
Some of the students, of course, find the classes engrossing. 'The country is so small that the classes and the lectures come to life,' says Leigh Herzig, a junior at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. 'You learn from a right-wing professor about Arabs and then you meet your [Arab] neighbor [in the dormitories] and it's totally different.'
The students have mixed reviews of the Hebrew lessons. In general, they say, they appreciated the summer ulpan's greater emphasis on conversation. During the semester, Hebrew classes seem to focus more on grammar, which the students find less crucial than being able to speak comfortably.
That's where the tutor program has been most useful. 'As much as you can learn in a classroom, it's not real life,' says Varda Yishai, a veteran Hebrew teacher and coordinator for the Language/Culture program. 'This is an application of the things they learn in class. You can study X hours a day in class but you don't learn a language in X hours.'
Hanging out with her tutor 'is a different atmosphere than in the classroom,' Morgovsky says. 'I feel less inhibited because she's my own age. I feel more self- confident.'
Rebecca Freund, a junior at the University of Arkansas, says the interaction with her tutor forces her to think in Hebrew, essentially the purpose of all language study. The students chronicle each meeting with their tutors in notebooks that they later hand to Gerson to be checked.
Another of the Bronfmans' purposes in funding the program was to support interaction between Israeli and Diaspora youth. For the tutors, who receive a token salary and a 40 percent tuition reduction in return for meeting with two students a week, the experience appears to be valuable as well.
Dror Berl, 20, a statistics major in his final year at the Hebrew University, taught last year in the Perah program, which pairs tutors with youths from disadvantaged households. This year, he says, he welcomed the chance to work with a student his own age - especially one that fit his image of the American dream, 'a worldly upper-middle- class Jew from the other side of the Atlantic.' Among his tutees is Bremer.
Rotem Shneor, 23, says the advertisement for tutors 'grabbed my attention straightaway. It seemed very interesting to work with foreign students' - although, after visiting family in America several times, American Jews were less of a novelty to him than to Berl. Shneor, a first-year international relations student, is tutoring Tuengel in Level Alef along with another North American who has become religious this year.
Berl says he treats the encounters with Bremer as fun. The two tool around the city in Berl's car, which is one of the few times Bremer has ridden in a private car since his arrival in Israel. With the radio tuned to Reshet Gimmel, Berl explains to Bremer the history of classic Israeli songs which in another situation, he says, he probably would switch off.
Shneor, in contrast, treats the program as an opportunity to be an ambassador for Israel, discussing with Tuengel issues of religion and state, Israeli politics, and army service. He is careful to include several views of each issue, although he stresses his personal opinion. 'It's very important that you take the opportunity to give a good picture of Israel rather than using the stage to criticize what you don't like,' Shneor says.
He also benefits from the interchange with Tuengel. Tuengel, who is Christian, encouraged Shneor to come to Bethlehem for Christmas, something Shneor otherwise never would have done. Shneor invited Tuengel to spend a Shabbat with his family in Rishon Lezion where, Tuengel says, their liberal views led to similar conclusions about the relation of religion and state despite their different religious backgrounds.
While Berl finds the American students somewhat exotic, Shneor finds that in the age of the Internet and CNN the differences are trivial. Along with a seriousness and depth to the American students, however, both Shneor and Berl find a certain naivete compared to Israelis of the same age.
The American students tend to take simplistic views of politics, war, and terrorism, Shneor says; their typical response to a terror attack would be for the army to go in and level an entire village, while the Israelis are more fatalistic. Berl, too, is incredulous that his tutees would want to go to the Old City on the final Friday of Ramadan precisely because some 400,000 Moslems are expected to pray there; Berl wants to be nowhere near what he sees as a potential tinderbox.
Yet both Berl and Shneor say they appreciate the Americans' happy-go-lucky attitude; they have come primarily to have fun on a year abroad and aren't troubled by the big questions of Jewish identity and war and peace that dominate Israeli life.
Students in levels Gimmel and Dalet are not included in the tutor program for now but instead participate in 'Encounters,' which includes visits to an army base, an urban kibbutz, a school, and a mixed Jewish-Arab kindergarten, after participants are given preparatory material on each subject. Next year these students, too, will be included in the tutor program, Yishai says.
The Bronfmans' grant is also being used to upgrade the Rothberg School's multimedia capacities, one area where students say the ulpan is sorely deficient, describing language-lab materials as juvenile and soporific.
Mechina director Tamar Weyl, part of a four-person team overseeing multimedia development, says the Bronfman money will allow the university to open two new state-of- the-art language labs in the Humanities building as well as two computer rooms in Boyar itself. The staff is also upgrading materials such as interactive films that students watch on the computer screen, and developing computer programs to teach reading comprehension, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
The materials can be sold overseas, helping to secure the Hebrew University's reputation as the international leader in Hebrew-language instruction, Weyl says. 'We were given a tremendous resource. It helps in terms of morale to get our stuff known and give us more options.'
Yishai says the money will also help develop new instruction material that is more topical and relevant to contemporary Israeli society. Weyl, for example, says students had just finished learning about the Law of Return in Hebrew class this fall when proposals to amend it became the stuff of headlines in the daily news.
'That's the great thing about learning in Israel,' Weyl says. 'It's a closed circle of studies, news and culture. You study something in the morning and you go outside and it's all around you.'
Many of the improvements to the language instruction funded by the Bronfmans' grant would appear obvious to anyone who has studied at the Rothberg School. Indeed, Yishai says, it's not that the Bronfmans' perception of the program's needs was particularly novel, but that they had the money to fund it.
'The [One Year Program students] exist in a kind of American ghetto,' Yishai says. 'They go from the Boyar to the building to the dorms and the path in between. What we're hoping is that this way they'll get to know the real Israel and learn the Hebrew of the street.
'And they're not just learning Hebrew,' she adds. 'They're also finding Israeli friends.'