Ulpan in Danger

The Education Ministry wants to close a one-of-a-kind ulpan send the students directly to school with a reduction in ulpan- from 32 hours to 6.

Tuesday’s committee meeting at the Knesset. (photo credit: JOSH LOGUE)
Tuesday’s committee meeting at the Knesset.
(photo credit: JOSH LOGUE)
The chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs called on the Education Ministry this week to save a one-of-a-kind Jerusalem ulpan.
The 42-year-old program is designed to prepare young olim, aged six to 18, for full-time school in Israel. Two weeks ago, however, the ministry announced a plan to close the program and send the students directly to school – with their weekly hours in ulpan dramatically reduced from 32 to five or six.
At Tuesday’s committee session at the Knesset, Education Ministry representatives argued that students would be best served by integrating immediately with other Israeli children at school.
Yet parents, former students and members of the Council of Olim Associations showed up in support of the ulpan.
“It’s very, very hard to take a child and put them straight in a classroom with Israelis,” said Esther Blum, coordinator of the Council of Olim Associations, in an interview before the Knesset session. “Nobody will talk to you. You don’t understand anything: not in the class, and not what’s happening outside the class.”
In addition to learning Hebrew, she stressed, students at this ulpan learn about the mentality and history of Israel in an accommodating, friendly environment.
“It’s not just about education,” explained Mark Shteyngauz, a former ulpan student, “it’s about being able to understand where you are.”
If the ministry moves forward with the change despite the committee’s recommendation, over the next year more than 100 olim will begin school in Jerusalem. Instead of spending 32 hours a week with all those students at once, the ulpan’s staff will run smaller programs at five to seven designated placement schools around the city for five hours every week, in addition to the normal curriculum; Yael Shalom, the ulpan’s director, would oversee the new program.
The Education Ministry no longer provides funding for the ulpan; it was cut off two years ago, but the municipality picked up the tab to keep the popular program alive. A ministry spokesman pointed to the fact that funding will be restored in the new program, developed as part of the ministry’s holistic approach – formulated by assessing the programs of other Israeli cities that successfully acclimate their young olim. This would allow school staff to follow these new students for many years, rather than setting them off into the wild once the ulpan ends.