Learning curve

Jerusalem's ulpanim have adapted to the city's changing demographics.

arab ulpan 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
arab ulpan 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
After four hours of Hebrew classes, food is the main thing on the minds of the 96 residents of Ulpan Etzion as they line up in the communal dining room. "I hope they'll give me another piece of schnitzel today," says Sam Hyman, originally from Philadelphia. Ignoring the noise inside and the aroma of chicken, religiously observant men from France, Britain and the Americas gather outside to pray under the shade of the pine trees. The multilingual chatter begins to fade once the huge dining room is evacuated and the students disperse to the computer room to chat with friends and relatives across the world. Others head back to their private quarters where they are as likely to be found studying as catching up on sleep. Studying at the ulpan, the first of its kind in Israel, is sometimes easier said than done in dormitories where the acoustics of the long corridors put Tel Aviv's Habimah Theater to shame. New olim have been practicing a similar routine at Ulpan Etzion since it was established in 1949. But things are set to change soon as the last semester on the current premises of Ulpan Etzion draws to a close next week. Situated in Jerusalem's upmarket Baka neighborhood, the campus has served as a residential merkaz klita (absorption center) for tens of thousands of new immigrants, providing a Hebrew study program and assistance with integration into Israeli society. Although Etzion will continue to teach Hebrew, its historic building, a former monastery, and its communal atmosphere will be things of the past. Jerusalem is now home to a plethora of Hebrew study centers whose roles reflect the diversity of the people who live in and visit the city. "Jerusalem's ulpanim are not the same as they were 10 years ago; their roles are changing and we are learning all the time. The nature of the olim has changed and we must adjust and work according to the people who come here," says Ora Malul, manager of adult education in the Education Ministry in Jerusalem. Some ulpanim are also providing non-Jews with a stepping stone into Israeli society, ranging from tourists and foreign university students to Christian clerics and Arab Jerusalemites. The Hebrew ulpan, which literally means "studio," is one of the cornerstones of Jewish immigrant integration and absorption into Israel. A typical intensive ulpan course lasts for five months, providing the foundations for reading, writing and conversational Hebrew. Under the directorship of Mordechai Kamrat, Ulpan Etzion set the mold for teaching Hebrew to newly ingathered Jewish exiles after the state was established. "It played a very important role in creating a scholarly ulpan system in the beginning and a high standard of teaching was implemented here. We give people a backbone of Hebrew and help assist people with their first steps in Israel," explains Etzion's director, Anat Uzzan. "I don't like the term 'melting pot,' where you put in different ingredients and they all come out the same. We are more like a fruit salad. People mix with other cultures, become more tolerant and are stronger individuals by the end." Not surprising then, that Etzion is regarded as one of Israel's premier ulpanim. The site served as a British Army officers club in World War II. The Jewish Agency then leased the site from its owners, the Carmelite Church, and the ulpan was founded. When the lease expired recently, the church decided not to renew it and the campus was sold to a private property developer for a seven-figure sum. Session 116 will hold its final class on Thursday and the new graduates, the last residents of the dormitories, are due to evacuate their rooms next Sunday. The main building on the north of the campus - consisting of dormitories, a kosher dining room, library and computer rooms, and surrounded by gardens - will never be home to new immigrants again. Its future is unclear, although the possibility it will be converted into luxury apartments is not unlikely. The changes at Ulpan Etzion are largely physical and it will be business as usual in mid-January when 90 new residents arrive for Semester 117. Etzion will continue in the smaller, southern section of the site rented by the Jewish Agency from the new owners and consisting of five low-rise buildings where living quarters will be scattered. "We're doing everything to maintain the atmosphere and connection between people despite the structural changes," says Uzzan. "We're hoping to have more young olim in the future and, if necessary, set up new projects like evening classes for Etzion graduates and working olim." Aside from its historical significance, Etzion's students also set it apart. "We focus on young academic aliya. Both have to exist in the equation: You need a good program as well as good students," says Uzzan. Etzion admits only olim who are university graduates and are between the ages of 21 and 35 years, although the majority are in their mid-20s. "Many students in other ulpanim come to Israel to improve their quality of life, but at Etzion most people come from a good economic base and left behind comfortable lives and jobs. It attracts people who are very Zionist," says Ofra Kotz, the Education Ministry's director of Hebrew at Etzion. In addition to increasing numbers of French olim, South America is well represented, as are North America and Britain. Etzion is also home to smaller numbers of olim from Russia, Turkey, India and central Europe. Among the 60 external students are Ethiopian olim who travel from Mevaseret Zion, taking four buses a day for the round trip to Baka. INCLUDING ETZION, Jerusalem is home to six public ulpanim administered by the Education Ministry in partnership with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry: Beit Ha'am, Ha'oleh, Morasha, North-South and Beit Canada (the last is run in cooperation with the Jewish Agency). "Jerusalem's public ulpanim are geared towards olim hadashim. The two ulpanim held by the municipality [Beit Ha'am and Ha'oleh] also teach other pupils including residents of east Jerusalem and foreign students," explains Malul. "Olim don't pay for their first full five-month ulpan but other students must pay a fee... The Jerusalem Municipality subsidizes its ulpanim and charges less than private ulpanim or the Hebrew University, which are generally more expensive." At Beit Ha'am, the diversity of students becomes evident upon entering morning classes. In contrast to the "fresh-off-the-boat" oleh found in other ulpanim, the classrooms at the municipality-run center are filled with foreign students, tourists and veteran olim. Approximately 50 percent of the 300 Hebrew students at the ulpan, located on Rehov Bezalel, come from east Jerusalem. Beit Ha'am was founded in the early 1960s and Arab students began to study there after the Six Day War in 1967; they typically learn Hebrew to access employment and higher education opportunities. "Arab students don't always learn Hebrew at school so they come here to study at the Hebrew University and mix with the [Jewish] Israeli population. The municipality provides this service to everyone who wants it; we're teaching everybody," says Beit Ha'am's principal, Ruti Barzilay. "We leave politics outside the classroom," she explains. "The mix is working and we have created an ulpan that is not disturbed by what is happening outside. But it's a challenge and because it worked in '67 doesn't necessarily mean that it will be the same now; some students are more political." In class "Alef Plus," the students, predominantly in their 20s, appear more focused on socializing than religious or political differences. "The teacher is great, but some students make too much noise," says Nazzee from Shuafat, in a mixture of Hebrew and English. "Some words are similar to Arabic, but it's not easy... We have to study hard and there is a lot to learn." Nazzee is taking an ulpan in order to go to university, although she hasn't decided what she wants to study yet. Her cousin, Nalah, was born in Colombia and now also lives in Shuafat and has her sights set on a career. "Hebrew is important for work," she acknowledges. "I studied business administration in Jerusalem already and I want to work in the same field, so I need Hebrew. The students are all very different and I think it's cool that there are so many languages here. It's sababa." The rest of the ulpanists are split between olim and visitors, including students, tourists, foreign workers and even priests from Italy. Jewish immigrants comprise up to 90% of the students at more advanced levels, such as Heh and Vav, and the ulpan is currently experiencing an increase in religious immigrants from France and the United States, says Barzilay. Also learning in Alef Plus is Miri from the Philippines, who arrived in Israel in 1998 to work and is currently training in reflexology and alternative medicine. "In this ulpan it's like the United Nations," she says. "I enjoy it, it's like my family. The students here are amazing and everyone makes a contribution." The mix also appeals to tourists like Ben from California. "It's why I came here. The atmosphere is more what I'm looking for - it's very diverse," he says. "My dad is Israeli and he spoke with me in Hebrew when I was younger but I didn't really take it in. Coming to Israel was a good opportunity to spend time with my family and, most of all, speak Hebrew with them." Nevertheless, Beit Ha'am is the exception to the rule when it comes to public ulpanim. Elana Shohamy, professor of language education at Tel Aviv University, believes that the services of ulpanim are not diverse enough and that there is a need for a more "inclusive" approach to Hebrew education. "There is a lack of opportunities for non-Jewish immigrants, and even temporary residents, to learn Hebrew. But Hebrew is generally taught in an ideological way while it should be more geared towards the workplace." Just a five-minute walk from Beit Ha'am is Milah, the Jerusalem Institute for Education, where students take part in a very different curriculum than at its neighbor. The center, tucked away in a cul-de-sac behind Rehov Hillel, offers one of around five of the privately run ulpanim in Jerusalem and balances Jewish content with a strong multiethnic character. "It is a multicultural place and a home for everyone," explains manager Clila Gerassi-Tishbi. The institute has taught Hebrew to people from over 80 countries since it was established by two American olim in 1996 and has a strong focus on Israeli and Jewish curricula. "We're a cultural ulpan - not a place where people just come and study," says Talia Newman, Milah's office manager. "Our students learn about Jerusalem and Israel and we encourage them to mix with people from different cultural backgrounds." There are three semesters a year for 400 students, around 30% of whom are new immigrants; they also participate in Hebrew literature classes, Talmud study and social activities. The teaching method differs from public ulpanim and therefore is not recognized by the Absorption Ministry. Arab students comprise around 10% of Milah's students, some of whom earned their first degrees abroad and need Hebrew to work in Israel. In addition to a number of Buddhists, approximately 10% of Milah's students are Christians, including priests and nuns who are attracted to Hebrew for theological reasons. Originally from Turkey, Aba Moshe is now living at St. Mark's Monastery in the Old City. "I want to read the Bible in Hebrew because that is how it was first written," he told In Jerusalem in his newly found Hebrew. "I speak Aramaic already, which is similar to Hebrew in many ways." Most students are in their 20s and 30s and mix with the older students - including Elena, a 71-year-old former professor at the Medical University of Russia in Moscow. "For me, Hebrew is not so important. I don't need it to work and I can speak English already. I do want to learn, but it is not easy at my age - my memory's not so good!" Although Jewish, her decision to immigrate 18 months ago was not directly motivated by Zionism; after her husband died she moved to Jerusalem be with her only son. "When I asked him 17 years ago why he was making aliya, he just told me, 'It's because I am Jewish.'" Russian immigration has played a significant role in molding today's ulpanim. "Since the 1990s, more olim were arriving from the former Soviet Union and this forced us to change. They knew less about Judaism and their culture was different, too," says Malul. IN RESPONSE to Russian aliya, Ulpan Morasha was established near the Old City in 1992. "I was working at another ulpan and decided that there was a need for something different. I felt a change in Israeli society and immigration over the last 20 years," reflects teacher Rachel Pressman. What Morasha's sparse, drafty building lacks in material comfort it makes up for with the dedication of its staff, who developed a unique method of Hebrew study. Its grammar-based system marked a radical departure from the traditional ivrit b'ivrit method. "Instead of fighting the mother tongue, we decided to use it and built a system on other languages. It was revolutionary," says Pressman. "Now Hebrew teachers in the Diaspora come here to learn how to teach. It's not a game or a club for absorption, it's a basis for language." Russian students still fill many of Morasha's classes, but they are steadily being overtaken by French ones. "Immigrants from Western countries have different requirements... Many are already coming with some Hebrew so we are adjusting our system and providing more advanced classes," says Malul. Back at Etzion, many alumni are seeking opportunities in the greater Tel Aviv area after graduating, but a significant proportion remain in Jerusalem to work, pursue religious studies or just enjoy the city's unique atmosphere. Uta Shira Beckman from Germany plans to rent an apartment in Nahlaot once the ulpan is over and will study finance part-time in Tel Aviv. "I'm still in the process of learning about Judaism and Jerusalem is the best place to be. The city is so beautiful and the people are nice," she says. While five months isn't a long time to master a new language, like most things in the life of a new immigrant, it's part of a long process of learning. "Language is part of 'belonging,' which is essential in Israel as it is a very ideological society," acknowledges Shohamy. "The ulpan is a very good idea in that it provides language services to new immigrants, but it can be a one-way process. Immigrants are not just an asset to numbers, they are people that we can learn from and they can learn from us."