What educational entity encompasses every age group from first grade to retirement, exists only in the Jewish homeland, may be found in someone’s home or in a government building, serves the Haredi and super-secular, and is nearly free? Ulpan!
The ulpan is a unique Israeli creation that emerged from the ingathering of diverse Jews repopulating their homeland. German-speaking Holocaust survivors, Jews fleeing Arab countries, olim (immigrants to Israel) from North America, France, and Argentina, as well as one million Russian-speaking Jews have all been served by an ulpan. One can see brain surgeons from Ivy League schools grasping to learn Hebrew alongside immigrants with barely an elementary education, and a moneyed entrepreneur from the United Kingdom struggling through poalim (verbs) while a Ukrainian with no formal education picks them up quickly. Everyone meets and greets in ulpan, the great equalizer.
Ulpanim come in as many flavors as the Jewish people. The serious Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, with its strict homework schedule and teachers who are quick and sharp in their feedback, is often touted as ‘The Ulpan of Ulpans’. “They know exactly how much they can stuff into each [four-week] segment before you have brain freeze,” says Aliza Aziz, a new olah from California. “Everything I learned in two years of college Hebrew is taught in four or five months in the beginner class!” She studies in dalet-plus, the eighth level. Many who attend this serious ulpan recommend it as the fastest track to getting up and running with the language. Students are of every age and religious background—Christians visiting the Holy Land, Israeli Arabs, and new olim.
Kibbutz Magan Michael’s colloquially coined “Ulpanapalooza” caters to the younger crowd who take socializing a little more seriously than Hebrew. But apparently fun and learning Hebrew can go hand in hand. Mike Flax, the manager of this ulpan, says that while the partying is paramount, the ulpan earns the highest scores in the Ministry of Education’s exit exam.
Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem targets the 20-to-30 crowd, just out of college and off the plane. Simi Suttner, who made aliyah (immigration to Israel) in July ‘08, started at Ulpan Etzion together with immigrants from 27 countries, including France, Chile, Turkey, Belgium, Brazil, Russia, India, and Argentina. Ulpan Etzion is a dorm ulpan, where the olim share learning, living, and adapting to a new culture. Fresh from dental school in Canada, Suttner took the Israeli licensing exams while attending ulpan, appreciating the instant social network the ulpan provided. She describes it as “five months of summer camp with new friends.”
Jerusalem’s Ulpan Or is a private ulpan that runs like a language school, and is priced accordingly. Claiming to teach “Hebrew at the speed of light,” it offers a unique combination of one-on-one lessons with a workbook, MP3 files, and afternoon sessions of “Café Ulpan” where students converse, facilitated by a teacher. I attended this ulpan for five days and found it effective. My most memorable moment was when I told the teacher he was a mazleg chazak (strong fork). Clearly my ulpan days are not over yet!