Our Common Language

By Gavriel Aryeh Sanders

This week we’re taking a break from our previous break and returning to the subject of Hebrew. Why? I found a local resource that is well worth knowing about, and the information I have for you is time-sensitive.

I must note, however, that our recent columns about responding to missionary messages have created a buzz of reaction. Without breaking anonymity or tipping my hand too far, I can tell you that a lot more people read this paper than I had been aware. The missionary topics have inspired some meaningful dialog within the Christian/messianic world. But for this week, let’s click back over to Hebrew, the original subject of this column.

It started with an e-mail a few weeks ago. The school where I teach informed me that there were limited funds available for continuing teacher education over the summer. I began looking for a program in Ivrit that might help someone at my level, essentially fluent but seeking to sharpen some skills.

The program at Hebrew College in Boston looked great. But it’s in Boston. Not a friendly commute. There are excellent summer language programs in Israel, especially in conjunction with the Hebrew University and Tel-Aviv University, along with various private institutes. But the limited district funds wouldn’t cover all the collateral expenses of travel, food, and lodging plus tuition.

I wondered if there was a way to replicate an Israeli immersion experience right here in New York–close to home, easy to reach, and with the mental workout I needed. Ahhhh–Google! I found Ha-Ulpan.org.

Founded in 2002 by master teacher Ahuva Tal Hollander, Ha-Ulpan offers modern conversational Hebrew to mostly adult students. The entire program–from texts to instructors to administration–is Israeli. The faculty are all certified, experienced native speakers. Ha-Ulpan’s curriculum features nine levels of fluency, from raw beginner to advanced. In my placement evaluation phone call with Ahuva Tal Hollander, we played Jewish geography. It turns out she grew up in the ’50s on a kibbutz where I taught English in the ’80s.

While most of the courses are taught at Machon Avi on the seventh floor of Congregation Ohr Zarua on East 82nd Street at Lexington Avenue, satellite classes are periodically offered at Chabad of Brooklyn Heights and Congregation Sulam Yaacov in Larchmont (Westchester).

Ha-Ulpan schedules four summer intensives and one winter intensive course. One summer intensive equals roughly two semesters of collegiate Hebrew study. Weekly and twice-weekly courses are also available. Special classes are scheduled periodically with a particular focus in Hebrew literature, drama, Tanach, grammar (dikduk), and even use of a computer in Hebrew.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Besides living four years in Israel, I have studied Hebrew in two kibbutz ulpanim, been privately tutored by a Hebrew U instructor, done intermediate- and advanced-level work at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), have studied biblical Hebrew with a seminary professor, and have taught several Hebrew courses. Given that diverse background, I wasn’t sure how much Ha-Ulpan could offer me. But the refund policy was reasonable, so I enrolled.

My experience has been exceptional. By the time this column is published, we’ll be concluding our second week of the intensive. My instructor is a bright and engaging professional who produces original materials adapted for our small class of just three advanced students. Keeping us focused and on track for three hours, five days a week is no small task. Last week, we invested one full session on the subject of syntax (תָחבִיר), which sounds rather dull and dry. But it was just the opposite. What we learned adds such color, depth, and cohesion to written expression in Hebrew. Our instructor also excels at producing reading materials that stimulate animated discussion. The time flies by.

Our instructional format also advocates project-based learning as a way to achieve higher retention of content and fluency. This week, each of us advanced students will present a mini-lesson to showcase vocabulary, grammar, background, and interpretation drawn from the work of a particular Israeli author, songwriter, or poet. All b’Ivrit–all the time.

I’ve been positively surprised by the content of this course. On the first day of classes, I didn’t know that I didn’t know the word for monotonous (חַדְגוֹנִי) or its antonym for diversified and multicolored (רָבְגוֹנִי). I learned these while studying an eloquent letter penned by Yoni Netanyahu, Hy’d, describing the beauty of the land of Israel. In just a few days of grappling with challenging, higher-level essays at Ha-Ulpan, my vocabulary has undergone at least a modest upgrade and a syntactical leap forward (I’m writing this column after only four class sessions).

Ha-Ulpan didn’t ask me to write about their program. But knowing the need and desire of so many in our community to preserve and cultivate their Hebrew fluency, I felt compelled to share my language adventure with you. This is a nearby resource that delivers an Israeli immersion experience without the jet lag and the travel costs. Also, if you would like to take your Hebrew to another level this summer, there are two more intensives coming up (July 25—August 11, Monday—Friday, 10 a.m.—1 p.m. and Aug. 1—23, Monday—Thursday, 6—9 p.m.).

You can get helpful information at the website (www.ha-ulpan.org). You can also call Ahuva Tal Hollander for a personal placement evaluation (917-446-6266). The tuition is modest, by the way. I was surprised. It averages out to about $16.50 per class hour. That’s a bargain in a city where a kosher pastrami sandwich might cost $15.95. v

Gavriel Aryeh Sanders has spoken to tens of thousands of Jews across North America and abroad delivering lively lectures related to Jewish living and learning, including his autobiography on “A Minister’s Journey to Judaism.” He currently teaches Hebrew at a Long Island Jewish high school. Your comments and questions are always welcome at GavrielSanders@gmail.com.


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