Well I've almost done it guys, by mid-September I'll supposedly be ready to enter level Gimmel in my Hebrew studies. I spent the first six months in Israel tackling level Alpeh, not knowing whether to be excited about learning a new language or to start breaking out in hysterics due to the overwhelming language barrier that faced me. My Aleph experience was a bit of a nightmare but I charged through and decided to enroll for level Beit. What still stands before me is level Gimmel, level Dalet, level Hay and level Vav. If you've been paying attention, that's six levels in all, which should take a total of 2-3 years to complete. I think I'm gonna be good to go after completing this current course, though you never know.
For the last month, I've been studying at a new ulpan in town and I have to say that I've noticed a marked difference. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Hebrew word "ulpan", it refers to the intensive study of the Hebrew language. I've sort of made it "my job" here over the last nine months to try to learn the language to the best of my ability (so as to be able to apply for jobs in places I would actually be interested in working as opposed to call centers with nighttime shifts for outsourced American companies). However, the fact that you can find English speakers anywhere and everywhere makes it a little challenging to keep stepping up your Hebrew language skills. Additionally, a good teacher can often make the difference between a successful ulpan student and a struggling one.
When new immigrants come into the country, they are provided with a "sal klita", or absorption basket, which includes, among other things your one way ticket to Israel, a small stipend each month for your first 7-8 months in Israel and approximately half a year of ulpan, paid for by the Israeli government. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me. However, your choice of ulpan is limited to those covered by your absorption basket. Thus, you cannot be too picky when you arrive unless you want to pay out of pocket. There are many places you can indeed choose to study out of pocket, including at all the major universities and colleges, at various Kibbutzim in exchange for work, and at private language schools.
When I arrived in Israel, my immigration counselor told me I had three options from which to pick in the Jerusalem area: Beit Ha'am (in the city center catering mostly to new immigrants), Ulpan Morasha (close to the city center catering to Russians immigrants and religious folk), and Beit Etzion (which was just a little bit too far out of the city). The fit that sounded best for me was at Beit Ha'am in the city center where I would have class daily, from Sunday-Thursday, 8 am - 12:30 pm for a period of six months, mid-December through June. I thought, "Wow! Six months of studying a language intensely?! I'll be fluent by then!!" After all, after only a few short months of studying Spanish, I felt like I was ready to hit the ground running. Suffice it to say that my eagerness was just a bit too naive.
Nearly eight months have passed since I started learning Hebrew and I only now feel like I'm at the point where I first began when I started studying Spanish. I had no idea what a blessing it was to study Spanish, a language phonetically similar to my own. Now, eight months after my dive into Hebrew, I am finally able to converse with people, though slowly and methodically. I am able to read what I see and to write what I hear in Hebrew with ease...but don't ask me what it means, the vocabulary is the most difficult part of all. Well, actually, I've already changed my mind. I'd like to add tackling the grammar to the list of greatest challenges in the Hebrew language. Everything in Hebrew makes logical sense; in fact, you always hear that Hebrew is a "very, very, very, very, very logical language" and it is for the most part. It follows patterns to a tee. It's remembering those patterns and recognizing when to use them that is the crux for us. I don't see how I will ever get all of these straight in my head. I listen to little kids on the street and think that they are the most brilliant beings ever created just because of how fluid their Hebrew is; it never ceases to amaze me how children pick up languages naturally.
I shouldn't be too hard on myself though, because I've heard it takes approximately three years to become comfortable speaking in Hebrew. So, I'm only eight months in, I'm still new at this. It makes perfect sense actually because when you think about it a baby takes about three years before they start talking fluidly, and before then, they are taking it all in and speaking abruptly when they begin.
For what it's worth, I have found that I'm much happier in my 2nd ulpan home, a private institution, and I feel like it's worth it to put my opinion out there. So, without further ado, let me offer my two cents on what I consider to be the most popular ulpanim (plural of ulpan) in town (in no particular order):
1. Beit Ha'am: This is where I began my Hebrew studies in Jerusalem; in a tall building in the center of town with 6 stories full of Hebrew classrooms, and thus, approximately 6 stories full of new immigrants. The classes were overcrowded, yet social, with many westerners, many Russian immigrants and a spattering of other immigrants from all over the world. I found the days to be long and very commercial, in the sense that there was a lot of singing, many field trips and a lot of fluff. Though it provided a social network, which was an important aspect of moving to a new country, I was less than enthused with the teaching. Of course, it all depends on the teacher. Everyone's favorite was a animated little lady named Osnat. At Beit Ha'am, you can choose to do classes 5 days a week or 3 days a week, and it will cost you about 900 shekels a month versus 600 shekels a month, respectively.
Contact: 11 Bezalel Street, Jerusalem, 02-624-0034
2. Ulpan Morasha: Near the Russian Compound, this ulpan also caters to new immigrants. I spent a day there a few months back, testing it out to see if it was my cup of tea. The teaching method here is very different than anywhere else. Whereas most places will tell you not to translate from English (or your respective language) into Hebrew, Ulpan Morasha trains you to figure Hebrew out by using your own language as a base. For the most part, people who go through their program are speaking Hebrew quickly and well, despite the critics of the method. Their written Hebrew and grammar, however, are never built up to a comfortable level. Classes are 5 days a week, 4 hours a day and there are two different teachers everyday, making for a total of 10 different ones a week. Definitely not for everyone, but people who go there tend to be happy there, from what I've heard.
3. Milah Institute: This is a private institute in Jerusalem, not one covered by the Israeli government. However, don't let this steer you away, because as a full time student, I am only paying 600 shekels a month (new oleh discount) which is only about $175/month. Classes are four days a week, three hours a day and the teaching is very sophisticated with the highest certifications. Classrooms are kept to about 20 students per class and there is usually just one class at each of the 6 levels going on at one time, depending on the need. You will have one teacher on Mon/Wed and another teacher on Tue/Thur, which makes for a good mix. The facilities are smack dab in the middle of town and are modern and....wait, there's one more thing....it's air conditioned. You might think that I'm joking that not everywhere is air conditioned when it's 100 F outside, but I kid you not. This is (sadly) a rare luxury in this part of the world. The students seem to be a mix of westerners, Russians and Arabs with a smattering of other students from around the world coming to fulfill their language requirement for university studies. Night classes are also offered here and are quite popular for working students.
4. Beit Etzion: This is the third Jerusalem option that is covered by the Israeli government. Beit Etzion is located in the Talpiyot area of Jerusalem, about a 10 minute walk from the popular neighborhood of Emek Refaim. It caters to a young crowd, accepting immigrants no older than 35 years old, and the school also provides housing facilities for new immigrants, so it definitely has a different feel to it than other places where you come and go daily. To me, seems like you might get warped into an environment where you can't escape speaking English to your peers since you are surrounded by them literally 24/7. Regardless, people have said that they enjoyed living in this quiet neighborhood and that it was the right choice for them as a new immigrant since they were able to meet people easily and have everything they needed at arm's length. After a few months, people often opt to go forward into new ulpanim (Etzion only has classes through level Gimmel) and they choose to move into the city center, a short ride away.
Contact: click here for further information
5. Ulpan Or: I've never actually encountered someone who attended Ulpan Or, mainly because it's primarily an online system of study. Think Rosetta Stone, but a degree more sophisticated, with the ability to communicate with the school's instructors and even occasionally meet one-on-one with the teachers. I am not in the position to make recommendations on this program, but it might be a good fit for a busy worker who wants to learn Hebrew on their own time.
6. Ulpan Aviv: All over town, you see signs and advertisements for "Ulpan Aviv: Learn Hebrew in 10 Days!" And we think to ourselves, "Really?" Now, how, may I ask you, is that possible that students magically learn Hebrew in 10 days there whereas in every other ulpan, it takes a students years. There must be magic water in their drinking fountain, I don't know. The only students I have met who have gone there are people who came to my respective ulpanim looking for something more in depth. So, I think that says it all right there. If your time is limited and you are coming to Israel for a travel holiday and want to pick up a bit of Hebrew in a limited amount of time, then this is the place for you. They will teach you key phrases to say and what you need to know to get around, i.e. how to get a taxi, how to ask for a menu, how to ask for a price, etc. I also imagine that Ulpan Aviv is more like having a one-on-one tutor which might be something you are looking for, so if that's for you, then it might also be worth checking out.
7. Hebrew University: Everyone around town will always rave about Hebrew University's ulpan programs because they are simply the best. However, they are also the most expensive. To study at Hebrew University, you will have to pay the price. You will basically be enrolling directly into the university and even summer classes will cost you between $1,000-$1,500 US per each 1-month session. If you opt to, you can also choose to take Hebrew classes during the academic year during semester-long courses. These will also cost you an arm and a leg. However, if you have the money to do it, I would absolutely recommend studying there. The social atmosphere is great, the campus is beautiful, the teachers are highly qualified and you will be surrounded by students who truly want to learn. Hebrew University gives you a great basis from which to continue your ulpan studies anywhere else in the future. With a focus on reading, writing and speaking, you get the best of each category. You will have to put in the effort, though, because the pace is fast and the demands on the student are of university caliber.
Of course, there are other places to study Hebrew, both in Jerusalem and throughout Israel; however, this is my insider's perspective on the current trends in local ulpanim. More important than anything, however, is continuing to practice your Hebrew outside of the classroom. Yes, it's exhausting, frustrating, belittling, overwhelming and maddening to try to wrap your tongue around a foreign language; but, it will do you good. Before you know it, small sentences will start coming out and you'll begin to understand the conversations around you and strangers will even ask for your help in their foreign tongue!