Scaling the Language Barrier

Special To The Jewish Week
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Driven by Zionism, native New Yorkers-cum-Chicagoans Gershom and Bobbie Lichtenberg immigrated to Israel two years ago, leaving behind their adult children and their ability to speak the local language. Both joined ulpan programs at level Aleph — the lowest, for beginners — and, compounding their challenge, chose specifically to live in a mostly Russian neighborhood so that they’d have no choice but to learn conversational Hebrew.

“People come here with the assumption that you can get by on English,” Gershom, an echocardiography technologist, said, “but then you never become an Israeli. By the end of our ulpan program, and with follow-up classes, we are speaking mostly Hebrew in stores. I wouldn’t understand a university lecture, but I recently went to the driver’s licensing bureau. and never once had to ask anyone to switch to English.”

“Becoming an Israeli” may not be everyone’s goal, but improving one’s Hebrew — whether for Jewish enrichment, the ability to speak with Israeli grandchildren, or to function as a new immigrant to Israel — is an endeavor pursued every year by thousands of “pensioners” (retirees) in Israel, be they visitors or olim, in Israel’s hundreds of ulpan (literally, “studio”) programs.

For new immigrants, in particular, intensive ulpan studies are essential, said Avi Silverman, the adviser for communities and education at Nefesh B’Nefesh, the immigration support group. “You don’t want to be a second-class citizen,” he said. “You want to be able to read your bills, to understand what the sales are in the store. You want to be able to read the teacher’s name on your grandchild’s report card, to order in restaurants. It’s OK to ask others for help, but you want to feel a certain level of independence. And also, to identify with the culture, not always to be an outsider.”

New immigrants are entitled to 500 free hours of ulpan studies, but many ulpans also accept private students who either have finished their first 500 hours or are just visiting. Estelle Lee of Landsdowne, Va., 66, studied at ulpan full-time for two months while visiting her children in Modiin. “Although I can’t speak a great deal after only two months,” she said, “I was able to shop for clothes and make myself understood. Also, I was able to read to my 4-year-old granddaughter at bedtime. She had to translate much of it, but I couldn’t read at all before, so I would say this experiment was a success.”

Ulpans generally offer courses on six levels, with Aleph (1) for beginners and Vav (6) for the most fluent. The goal is for students to move up one level in 500 course hours. The levels offered, and any specializations (such as courses just for retirees) depend on demand, Silverman explained. If a critical mass of students request a specialized seniors course at, say, level Aleph, the ulpan will open a class. Senior immigrants are entitled to ulpan classes for their own age group, but in reality the demand might not be high enough in some localities, in which case the government will provide bus passes to take a retirees’ ulpan elsewhere, if one wishes.

Cities with many older Russian immigrants, such as Netanya, are most likely to offer seniors’ courses regularly. In Jerusalem, Ulpanit Ha’Oleh (formerly Beit Mitchell) always runs specialized senior courses in the evenings. Morning classes there and at Ulpan Philip Leon also tend to attract older students, though not exclusively.

The first step to choosing an ulpan is to make appointments at your local program (a full list is at www.nbn.org.il, under “Aliyahpedia” and “Hebrew Learning”), take the entrance exam to determine your level, and find out what courses are upcoming. Once an appropriate space is confirmed, immigrants then go to the Ministry of Absorption for a tuition voucher. If you move, the balance of your hours may be transferred to a different ulpan. (For those interested in studying Hebrew in New York, the Aliyahpedia page also lists ulpan programs in the United States and online.)

Silverman explained that courses catering to retirees go at a slower pace, with more repetition and materials speaking to the interests of older learners. For example, course content might focus on history and grandchildren, rather than job searches and current pop culture. Seniors’ courses also tend to rely less on technology, and are more likely to meet two or three evenings per week, rather than every day.
Most programs put equal weight on speaking, reading and writing, but there are exceptions. The Morasha program in Jerusalem, for example, emphasizes conversational skills, and asks questions in English (the answers are expected in Hebrew).

At any level, ulpan students should expect 90 to 120 minutes of homework each night. Silverman emphasized the importance of completing the homework assiduously; many seniors hire tutors to help them.

Rivka Marchand, who is turning 70 next month, asked her teachers every day to show her the next day’s plan, so that she could prepare readings ahead of time. A native of Puerto Rico who lived in Orlando for 15 years, Marchand has studied at four Jerusalem programs: Morasha (which she found “overwhelming” for older beginners); Bet HaAm (where she successfully completed level Bet (2), but did not feel comfortable with the high Arab student population); Milah (a private ulpan where she repeated Bet and finished Gimmel); and her local community center (where she now takes Hebrew classes intermittently). These days she carries the popular Babylon electronic dictionary in her purse, so she can look up new words as soon as she encounters them.

“You will learn as much as the hours you put into it,” she advised. “By our age we are at a disadvantage, because it takes more time to learn a language. But, if you really study, if you put the time into it, I don’t see a problem. My problem is that I don’t get a chance to practice because everyone I know speaks English or Spanish. But I just started volunteering at Yad Sarah five days a week, so I hope there I can practice my Hebrew.”

Silverman suggested that other older immigrants take a cue from Marchand and find ways to speak Hebrew socially. “Most of your friends will be Anglos,” he said. “It takes a concerted effort to break away from one’s English-speaking crowd and join a diner’s club or discussion group where you’ll hear more Hebrew. At this age, it’s legitimate not to wish to integrate, to say ‘at this point of my life I’m not looking for Israeli friends, I’m looking to enjoy Israel, my children, and my synagogue,’ but the more you interact with Israelis, the richer your experience will be.”

 

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