Five months and done

A reorganized Education Ministry budget raises concerns about the country's commitment to helping with the tough assimilation process.

ulpan etzion 224.88 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
ulpan etzion 224.88
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Ulpan students who were hoping to return to their studies after the summer break may find they have no classes to return to, after Education Ministry Director-General Shlomit Amihai instructed that no Continued Ulpan classes be opened this academic year. This decision follows an eight-month battle between the Education Ministry and ulpan teachers over how to deal with a 38-percent cut in the ulpan budget. But are five months of Hebrew lessons enough for a new immigrant? Continued Ulpan According to the new system, the Education Ministry will continue subsidizing the first 500 hours (five months) of a new immigrant's Hebrew studies, Ulpan Aleph (First Ulpan). It will no longer subsidize ulpan studies, known as Ulpan Hemshech (Continued Ulpan), beyond that initial period, except for specialized programs for certain groups. "Hebrew is not something you can measure in months. [Immigrants] come with different levels and certain people learn quicker than others," Danny Pins, the Director of the Division of Immigrants and Integration of the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, told Metro. "For certain people [five months] is wonderful and for other people it's only the beginning," he added. According to Gali Zadik, an ulpan teacher in Kiryat Yam and head of the Teachers' Campaign Group which participated in Knesset debates on the ulpan issue, new immigrants need more than just basic language tools to properly integrate into society. Immigrants don't just need to get by in shops and restaurants; they need to find and keep employment, converse with their children's teachers, negotiate housing contracts, explain electrical problems to mechanics, make friends - the list is endless. Nir Topper, adviser to the director-general of the Education Ministry, admits that the ministry knows 500 hours of language instruction is not enough to equip anyone to learn a new language and go out and find a job. But the ministry is working within the limits of a budget, he explains. It has re-ordered its priorities and decided that the most important ulpan population is the newest immigrants, those who have most recently arrived. "The first goal is to help [new immigrants] find their place - geographically and mentally. If the budget [increased], maybe there would be an opportunity to open Continued Ulpans, but right now, when the minister needs to find a place to cut, this is the place," he told Metro. Pins said that if the authorities were "a little more creative," additional classes could be made available, either via a full-fee-for-service arrangement or a partial subsidy. Ulpan Ra'anana, for example, has until now charged NIS 55 for two months of studies - approximately 182 hours, but has been ordered by the Education Ministry to completely cut off Continued Ulpan. Other institutions however, such as universities, charge "a lot of money," Pins said, and their intensive courses are only offered at certain times of the year. The Hebrew Studies Center at Tel Aviv University charges immigrants $1,200 for its intensive seven-week summer course, which comprises approximately 175 hours. Avi Silverman, Adviser for Education and Communities at Nefesh B'Nefesh, suggests that Continued Ulpan be offered for a nominal fee, "something that was not hundreds of shekels per month." Silverman suggests that private tutors could be offered in areas where there are insufficient students to warrant creating an entire class. Nefesh B'Nefesh has also put together a list of online resources, including online group classes. But at least as far as the Education Ministry is concerned, education as part of Continued Ulpan was a for-free service. Ministry spokeswoman Pnina Ben-Shalom explained how "up until now, any fees that Continued Ulpan students paid ulpans went to the local authorities or the operating bodies, and not to the Education Ministry." The ministry is considering whether to provide Continued Ulpan for a fee, but a nominal payment may not be enough to cover the costs of the classes. Also, low demand in a particular region may not justify opening a new class. In that case, immigrants could potentially continue studying as members of existing First Ulpan classes. The Education Ministry did not state whether this would be permitted under the new system, though it said that students who have finished five months of ulpan have attained a higher level of of facility in Hebrew than First Ulpan students and cannot continue to study with them. However, because ulpans offer numerous language levels in First Ulpan studies, this may not be the case. The Education Ministry recognizes the importance of providing immigrants with the Hebrew they need in order to work and will continue to provide specialist Continued Ulpan programs according to demand, including ulpan for accountants, bookkeepers, lawyers, courtroom typists, medical and pre-medical professionals, police force candidates and bus drivers. In addition, some municipalities, such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Netanya, are implementing Continued Ulpan frameworks for their new immigrant populations, Ben-Shalom said. The ministry has also said that regular Continued Ulpan classes that were running as of January 3, 2008, could continue running until their scheduled conclusion. There will also be no changes to Continued Ulpan for Ethiopian and disabled immigrants. 10 years down to 18 months Until now, immigrants have had 10 years in which to exercise their entitlement to 500 hours of subsidized First Ulpan. That gave them time to find a house, put their children in school and get established in the country before committing themselves to full-time study. The new system, says Topper, will return to the original set of regulations set by the Education Ministry. Immigrants will now have 18 months to exercise their First Ulpan entitlement. Pins, however, points out that for some people, getting off the plane and studying Hebrew right away is not effective. "They're processing so many other things," he said. Studying Hebrew should be an ongoing opportunity... whether they just arrived or whether they've been in Israel for several years." "The eligibility period of 10 years was only [implemented] by a temporary order from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry while the budget allowed for it," said Ben-Shalom. 'Tourists' The word "tourists" in the context of ulpan studies does not refer to holiday-goers only. It includes people considering immigrating and spouses of Israeli citizens who are working to achieve immigrant status. Under the new system, tourists will only be able to study at immigrant absorption centers and in kibbutz programs, which currently charge NIS 2,000 and NIS 1,500 for five months of ulpan, respectively. Zadik explained that a new quota will also limit the percentage of tourists in a given ulpan to 20 percent of the class. This means that ulpans in Tel Aviv - which are heavily populated with tourists - will no longer be able to enroll all of them, Zadik added. Topper called the quota a "technical issue" that he hoped would be solved. "We are working on expanding the service for tourists [so that they will be able to study] in cities as well [as kibbutzim]," he said. The restrictions on the number of tourist ulpan participants came as a result of the Education Ministry's re-prioritization. It ranked its actions and programs, and selected its most important market, said Topper. They decided their main responsibility lies with immigrants, so tourists come second. "Now, we're not leaving them aside and saying, 'I'm sorry, don't go to ulpan.' [Instead] we're offering them [an opportunity] to study and to pay for the service," said Topper. "If the decision is whether to invest in actual immigrants or in potential immigrants, I think the responsibility is to invest in actual immigrants first. It's important to keep providing opportunities for tourists. The question is, at what cost and who's responsible?" said Pins. Class size Regulations regarding ulpan class sizes will be strictly enforced under the new system. In the past, classes could be found with fewer than the set minimum of 25 students (17 for classes of Ethiopian immigrants). Zadik said that when there were fewer than 25 immigrants in one area, classes would be opened anyway to avoid making the immigrants wait too long. "Now we can't do this. We have to wait until the class is full, which can take months," Zadik told Metro. Immigrants can commute to an ulpan in another region, if there are no classes available in their area, but "If you live in Ashdod and have to go to ulpan in Tel Aviv, it's a problem," says Zadik. "You don't have a car, you don't know the language, it's a long trip. Most [immigrants] don't do it. If they have to go to another city to study, they go to work [instead] and don't study at all." Another problematic scenario is one in which all immigrants in a given area, where there are few immigrants requiring First Ulpan, are put into one class regardless of their level of Hebrew upon arrival. "It's very difficult to teach Hebrew to a class of four different levels," said Pins. As such, centralized efforts to teach Hebrew are disadvantageous in that they demand the immigrant to travel further, but advantageous in that they are able to offer more classes at various levels. Another solution would be to allow ulpan classes to include paying tourists, subsidized First Ulpan students and paying Continued Ulpan students whose Hebrew is at the same level. The 'they can afford it' stereotype It's no secret that Anglo immigrants are at times stereotyped as affluent and therefore able to pay for their Hebrew language education. "With those mansions they must have lived in overseas and the currency exchange rate on their side, those Anglos don't need the help of Israel's poor government," many think Even for Israelis, this mentality is embarrassing, said Silverman, because it is not actually true. "It's prejudice against English speakers. Not only does it handicap them - because they're not getting the same services as other people, and they can't all financially afford it - it keeps Anglo immigrants at a distance in some ways by saying, 'You're fine, you don't need our systems, you don't need our help, you'll be able to buy it,'" he added. Why the ulpan budget was cut The ulpan budget was cut from NIS 85 million in 2007 to NIS 53m. in 2008. According to Topper, the reason for this "unfortunately deep cut" was a general cut in the Education Ministry's budget, which forced the ministry to prioritize its activities and direct its resources at the "core" of its responsibilities. It decided that students from kindergarten through high school were its first priority. Consequently, its Adult Education Department had to make a greater slash than the average budget cut, and when the ulpans first heard about them they feared they'd be closed down altogether. "Then it turned out that [the ministry just] wanted to change the [ulpan] administration," said Zadik. The Education Ministry looked at various ways of continuing to provide ulpan service within the new budget constraints. It suggested handing over responsibility for the ulpans to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry or even to the Pensioners Affairs Ministry. Being a smaller office with very specific goals, the Pensioners Affairs Ministry may have been better able to manage the ulpans. The ulpans protested this idea though, arguing that the Pensioners Ministry had nothing to do with immigrants or education. "We eventually decided it wasn't a good idea," said Topper. Privatization was also considered, but the ulpans fought this too, out of concern that the profit motive would interfere with the ulpan system's values. The Education Ministry finally decided that the best way to keep providing superior service to immigrants was to keep the ulpans under its control. The ulpans will remain under the auspices of the Education Ministry's Department of Adult Education, as they have been since the establishment of the State of Israel. Topper says there are still issues that the Education Ministry needs to resolve, but every difficulty is being addressed as best as possible. "It's not always what we want to give, but we don't have an unlimited budget," he said. 60 years of Zionist education Ulpans are not only a place in which to learn Hebrew. At Purim, students put on plays about Esther being chosen as the new queen. On Holocaust Memorial Day, students light candles in the names of those who perished, and on Independence Day they learn Zionist songs. When the summer rolls around, students learn how to cope with the Israeli heat. Ulpan students also learn why some shops close between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and are introduced to the classic comedy sketches of HaGashash HaHiver. Ulpans also serve immigrants on a social level by putting them in regular contact with people who are at a similar stage in their lives. "If the ulpans are closed down, there won't be an equivalent replacement [for this Zionist-orientated education]. There will be courses in Hebrew, like there are Hebrew courses in the USA, but it won't be the same as ulpans," Zadik said. "I have been an ulpan teacher for 20 years. Never in my life did I think that ulpan teachers would have to stand up and defend [the ulpans' right to exist] as though they were some type of meat factory. If they were shut down, they would never be [reinstated] as they are now, with all the teachers, all the knowledge. Sixty years of knowledge would be lost," warns Zadik.