September 16, 2009
Immersed in Hebrew, Ulpan Learners Make Great Strides
As Charles Goldsmith became more active in his synagogue, he yearned to know more about the meaning of services and the sacred texts. So the retired physician, 66, decided to enroll in a Classical Hebrew course at the Whizin Center’s Hebrew ulpan.
Before long, he also took an interest in conversational Hebrew and began meeting for two hours every Thursday morning with other like-minded adults to practice his reading and speaking skills.
“It gives you a sense of a deeper connection to Israel and the Jewish people,” Goldsmith, of Santa Monica, said during an interview after class on a recent morning. “I also do it for the challenge — I’m retired, and you have to do things to keep your brain young.”
Goldsmith is a typical student in the ulpan program. People of all ages enroll for a variety of reasons: some want to be able to converse with Israeli family or friends, others want to explore their heritage and still others are gearing up to convert to Judaism. High school students even take ulpan classes for college credit.
“We have 17-year-old high school students and 70-year-old retirees,” said Liora Alkalay, director of the Hebrew ulpan. “When you’re learning a language, nothing compares to being in a classroom with other students and communicating together in that language.”
Courses in the modern Hebrew track are offered by tier — there are five levels each for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners. Each course lasts 10 weeks, with students meeting weekly for two-hour classes. As students progress through the levels, classes are increasingly conducted in Hebrew to create a fully immersive environment akin to being in Israel.
On a recent Thursday morning, four adult students in an advanced ulpan course gathered in a classroom to read and discuss a book of Hebrew short stories with teacher Aliza Klainman. Participants analyzed the characters, motives and themes with Klainman, who didn’t once let her class “stray” into English.
Klainman has taught Hebrew at AJU for 20 years; she teaches all levels of ulpan, from beginners learning from scratch to near-fluent speakers. Her enthusiasm for her students is evident.
“The satisfaction you get with beginners is that they start out with zero experience — some people have never even seen a Hebrew letter — and after 10 weeks they can write the print, read the script and converse in the present tense,” she said. “That is amazing to watch every time.”
Classes are taught using a variety of media. Students listen to audio conversations, read modern works of Israeli literature (simplified for language learners), watch Israeli movies and read Israeli newspapers. Weekly current events discussions are, of course, in Hebrew.
Goldsmith, who has also taken classes at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, Israel, said he’s impressed with the Whizin Center’s program. “The quality of teaching here is the closest you can come to learning at an ulpan in Israel,” he said.
The Classical Hebrew track teaches students how to read from the Bible, Torah and siddur and delves into the meaning and terminology of sacred texts used in synagogue services. Aside from the usual full-length courses, the ulpan periodically offers short, intensive classes that meet for four hours per day and cram 10 weeks of material into one week. Last year, the ulpan also began offering classes off campus at select synagogues around Los Angeles, including, among others, Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.
There might be up to 300 students enrolled in the ulpan at any time, but classes are usually kept to about 10 students each, Alkalay said. Many students end up sticking together from beginner level through advanced, forming lasting friendships along the way.
“Our classes often become like social clubs,” Alkalay added. “People invite each other to weddings, bar mitzvahs — they get very connected.”