Straight and to the point

Ami Steinberger’s ulpan, a relatively new kid on the block, gives priority to conversation and de-emphasizes grammar.

Ami Steinberger 311 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Ami Steinberger 311
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
The first year that Ami Steinberger taught private ulpan classes, he made shirts with the words “Dibru Iti!” (Speak to Me!) emblazoned in blue across the front. “I felt dorky, but yes, I wore it,” says Joanne Adlerstein, an ola from New York who started Steinberger’s ulpan the day after she made aliya. “I had efes [zero]. I could pray, but I couldn’t ask for directions.”
Creating an ulpan that caters to the practical needs of Englishspeaking olim is exactly what Ami Steinberger had in mind when he created Ulpan La-Inyan in 2008. The private ulpan now has 35 students in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and big plans for the future.
“People outside Jerusalem, they immerse automatically,” says Steinberger. “You don’t have that in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Instead of there being an Anglo bubble and then all the Israelis, I want to combine the two.”
As the Jerusalem municipality shakes up the Jerusalem ulpan scene by creating a single Ulpan Center in Beit Ha’am, which combines Ulpan Morasha, Ulpan Ha’oleh, and Ulpan Beit Ha’am, private ulpans are stepping up to offer creative alternatives. In the city, private ulpanim include Ulpan Or, which has a two-week miracle immersion program; Ulpan Mila, which takes a Hebrew-through-Israeliculture approach; and Ulpan Aviv and Ulpan Eitan, which offer one-on-one instruction, in addition to a plethora of private tutors.
Steinberger is the relatively new kid on the block with Ulpan La-Inyan. He models his lessons on the Pimsleur method, an auditory-based language acquisition process that relies on constant repetition and anticipating the correct response. He barely touches grammar, concentrating instead on helping his students communicate in Hebrew in daily situations.
Steinberger grew up in what he terms an “Anglo-Israeli bubble” at a Chabad synagogue in Encino, a district of Los Angeles. His father spoke to him only in Hebrew and, as the oldest child in the family, had the most opportunity to practice before his siblings came along and started speaking English with each other. When he was 14, his family made aliya. Though they ultimately left after a year in Israel, Steinberger fell in love with the country after an emotional Remembrance Day and Independence Day.
He finished high school in LA and did a year of yeshiva in Mevaseret Zion. While completing a degree in English literature at Yeshiva University in New York, Steinberger studied Arabic, Aramaic and biblical Hebrew, giving him a strong understanding of Hebrew grammar in comparison to other Semitic languages.
After college, Steinberger came straight to Israel. He worked three consecutive summers at Bnei Akiva summer programs, and during the school year he worked a variety of jobs, including dorm counselor in Mevaseret and Hebrew teacher at a school in Jerusalem. After returning to the States for a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Pepperdine in California and working as a therapist for children and families for a year, Steinberger decided that psychology wasn’t for him and returned to Israel.
His training in psychology and certification as a life coach help immensely with Hebrew teaching. “Before [the course], people can’t even open their mouths because they are scared,” Steinberger says. “Clinical psychology, life coaching and training – all that helps me to get the students to know where they can use a good word here and there, how to challenge them.”
He discovered the Pimsleur method when he decided to learn Arabic on his own. “I had never learned a language from scratch, so I wanted to see what my students were going through,” he says. He was so impressed with Simon & Schuster’s Pimsleur Arabic course that he decided to teach Hebrew using the same methodology: frequent repetition, concentration on core vocabulary and emphasis on organic learning by hearing rather than worksheets and blackboard lectures.
“I like the method. It’s not as didactic as the other class I took,” says Jonathan Livon, a 27-year-old who works at a hitech company in Tel Aviv and has done two Ulpan La-Inyan courses. “There’s room for asking questions, making connections between words you’ve heard or words that sound like words that you’ve heard.”
“I suggest they take their Hebrew to the streets,” says Steinberger. His advice: Always order your food in Hebrew, strike up conversations with strangers, visit an old-age home and for the single students – always, always flirt in Hebrew because that could turn out to be a significant other and an immersion course all rolled into one.
When Adlerstein, a former lawyer, moved to the German Colony from New York, she took Steinberger’s advice and went around to all the stores and introduced herself, telling the staff that she was a new immigrant trying hard to learn Hebrew. Now, she says, if she tries to speak in English, they tease her, asking “Where’s the Hebrew?”
“I have grandchildren here, and they laugh their heads off when I try to speak in Hebrew,” Adlerstein says. “Even the twoand- a-half-year-old corrects my pronunciation.”
Though Steinberger’s ulpan is growing quickly, it’s difficult to compete with the state or municipality ulpans, which olim can attend free of charge.
Steinberger’s six-week sessions, which meet five days a week for an hour each day, cost NIS 900- 1,000. The most intensive ulpanim for olim, available free of charge, are five days a week, four hours a day, for five months.
“The state ulpanim are heavy on the grammar,” explains Steinberger. “The thing with grammar is that if someone is interested in language and has an affinity for languages, they’ll like it, they’ll get it, they’ll succeed and be able to speak based on that. But from my gross judgment, about half, if not more, don’t get it and then they start feeling bad about themselves, thinking they’ll never get the language. So I wanted a program that’s based on communicating, based on people being able to participate with each other and interact with Israelis.”
La’inyan also happens to be Steinberger’s favorite Hebrew word. It means “straight and to the point,” the way that Steinberger hopes his students will learn Hebrew.
Teaching Hebrew is Steinberger’s livelihood, but he enjoys giving it away for free as well. He offers free Hebrew learning material, including a word of the day, on his Web site (
“Birthright is looking for ways to connect Jews around the world with Judaism and Israel, and this is a way I can grab onto that,” he says. “Why not spread the knowledge if I have it? It doesn't have to be all corporate.”
For Steinberger, helping others learn Hebrew is a way of celebrating Zionism. “The language creates community,” he says. “I enjoy it, and I feel more connected to Israel, more connected to Hebrew, more connected to Judaism.”