Immigrants protest closing of ulpan

Beit Mitchell to be absorbed into capital’s other main Hebrew-language school.

ulpan protest 311 (photo credit: Noah Rayman)
ulpan protest 311
(photo credit: Noah Rayman)
Forty ulpan students converged on Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s office on Wednesday afternoon to protest the municipality’s decision to shut down Ulpan Beit Mitchell, and to expose what they see as the city turning its back on new immigrants.
The Jerusalem Municipality, which has traditionally run two Hebrew-language ulpans in the city, will fold Beit Mitchell into Ulpan Beit Ha’am, vacating downtown real estate on Rehov Sokolov.
But the students of Beit Mitchell – predominantly elderly and recent immigrants from the US – said yesterday that the municipality had made no effort to communicate the reasons behind its decision and had not specified whether the students would be able to continue their classes.
“Absolutely nil,” said student Leah Kroll regarding communications from Barkat’s office, as she stood before the lobby of the municipality, where armed guards barred the protesters from entering. “He has totally forgotten the immigrant community.”
In recent years, Jerusalem has become the top destination for immigrants to Israel. Ulpan classes end next week, and the 300 students at Beit Mitchell were only just informed that classes would not be resumed there next semester.
In May, the municipality released a statement saying that, in conjunction with the Education and Immigrant Absorption ministries, it would restructure its ulpans in a way that consumed fewer resources.
Katya Grjibovsky, an official at the municipality, told The Jerusalem Post that the city would find new positions for Beit Mitchell’s teachers. She added that in recent weeks, the city had examined various reforms for its ulpan system, including the possibility of privatizing courses.
But protesters said Beit Mitchell offered courses at particular times and at certain levels that were not offered anywhere else. The municipality has not confirmed whether Beit Ha’am, on Rehov Bezalel, or related ulpans in the German Colony, will offer higherlevel classes or the morning and evening courses that students say are vital if they are to retain their jobs.
According to Amnon Aharoni, manager of Beit Ha’am, the ulpan may begin to offer separate courses for students who receive government language course vouchers and for those who pay out of their own pockets.
All new immigrants receive vouchers that pay for five months of full-time ulpan studies or 10 months of parttime classes. In addition, the Jerusalem Municipality has traditionally provided an extra 100 hours of ulpan classes free of charge.
Among the eight levels of instruction at Beit Mitchell, the lower levels are geared primarily toward recent immigrants with vouchers. But in the higher levels, 80 percent of the students pay tuition. If non-paying students are separated from these courses, there may not be enough of them to fill a class.
The ulpan may have no choice but to merge course levels, said students, who added that the measure was part of the municipality’s goal to privatize Hebrew education.
At Wednesday’s protest, Aharoni addressed demonstrators, providing the first official response to students since they began contacting the mayor’s office more than a week ago.
He told them the demonstration was unnecessary.
“We will find a place for everyone who wants to learn,” he said.
As he spoke in Hebrew, the protesters made clear the need for ulpan courses. Amid the shouts of disapproval, one voice stood out: “Speak in English, we can’t understand you.”
Ben Spier contributed to this report.