By Marion Marrache
(March 29) - It's their first home and classroom. Ulpan Etzion, one of the largest ulpan and absorption programs in Jerusalem, is where young immigrants spend five months learning Hebrew and getting a foot in the door of Israeli society
Jonathan Fagan arrived in Israel with only bearable Hebrew. After six months at Ulpan Etzion in 2000, the native Londoner landed a job in the Israel aircraft industry. Fagan now works solely in Hebrew.
Media specialist Melanie Davidsohn, 26, who recently arrived from Manchester, says, "Being on the ulpan is a very positive experience for me. I am an only child and thought I might be lonely but this is a great way to get to know people. I never feel alone."
Nestled in a picturesque villa overgrown with ivy on Rehov Gad 6 in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood, Ulpan Etzion is an absorption center/ulpan for new immigrants. It is run by the Jewish Agency and geared toward those ages 25 to 35 from more than 20 countries. Presently, 150 students attend the ulpan, which consists of intense, daily Hebrew lessons from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Half of the students live on the premises. Usually, the numbers are higher, with about 180 students attending the ulpan each term, either from from mid-January to mid-June or mid-July to mid-December.
Since it opened in 1950, Ulpan Etzion's population has always mirrored the immigration waves in Israel, explains Ulpan Etzion Director Shlomit Pilzer. "During the Moshe and Shlomo operations the majority were Ethiopian. Before that there was a massive influx of Russians. Now South Americans predominate (from Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and Venezuela). There are also young professionals from France, Turkey, the US, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, the Ukraine, Russia, the UK, and Romania," says Pilzer.
Former student Levy Bernstein says that he felt "a sort of an ingathering of the exiles, with so many nationalities around me."
At the ulpan students are offered a Jewish framework that doesn't depend on religion. The ulpan is kosher and officially Shabbat is observed, but if someone wants to listen to music in their room or go and watch TV privately, no one has a problem with it.
She considers it really kibbutz galuyot. Pilzer sees the religious and the non-religious mix together and the infinite patience they have with each other. Students are introduced to local synagogues and to the weekly holiday itself through a Shabbat program.
There are trips, parties, and festival celebrations, including of course the recent Purim party. Tours are taken to Ein Gedi and Sde Boker, to the Western Wall tunnels and Yad Vashem, as well as to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. There is also Israeli folk dancing. Students meet for group discussions on set topics such as the cultural differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Alex Arnold, 27, who worked in hi-tech in the UK originally went to Tel Aviv because he "wasn't so keen on Jerusalem after hearing so much bad stuff in the news." But he changed his mind upon hearing of Ulpan Etzion.
Ulpan members have at least one university degree. Doctors, lawyers and electronic engineers are all brought together by their desire to live in Israel. Many are placed in the ulpan through their local branch of the Jewish Agency back home. The cost is $1,400 for five months for internal students, inclusive of food and board. Immigrants who attend the ulpan as day students don't pay.
Numbers in the Ulpan have decreased slightly because of the political situation, says Pilzer.
Ulpan Etzion is situated five minutes away from Gilo. "The students can hear the ambulances every night, the shootings... but they are still here and living regular lives because they believe in why they came. We get very involved with the students even though the population changes every five months," explains Pilzer, proudly showing photos of students from past years. She remembers all their names and nationalities.
Romance isn't an intentional part of the program, but Pilzer points out that many couples do meet at Ulpan Etzion.
Referring to the standard of accommodation Pilzer says, "It's not the King David but you don't have to worry about any of the everyday problems, all the needs are met. The emphasis is on studying the language and on understanding what is going on in the country in a general way."
FAGAN says he worked intensely on his language skills. When he meets up with others from his class he sees that some are not using their Hebrew because it is so easy to do everything in English. During Fagan's ulpan half the group was religiously observant.
"The atmosphere was very close and friendly. They were such a large group of Shabbat observers that it was a cozy option for those who wanted to keep it. Just this last Shabbat I had a couple of friends from ulpan over," says Fagan.
The majority of his secular friends were made at the Ulpan. "I knew about six faces when I came," Fagan says.
Gil Remeny 28, was born in Israel and most of his father's family live here. At the age of four the family went back to UK via Spain where they spent three years in Torremolinos.
Upon returning to Israel Remeny enrolled in the ulpan from July to December, 1999. He says it was hard to tell how much his Hebrew improved. But he admits his homework pattern was inconsistent. It did help that his French roommate didn't know English, so he was forced to communicate in Hebrew. The third roommate was Australian.
Dorm rooms are shared by two to three people. Food is provided. Although many would probably prefer single rooms there are benefits that come from living in close quarters with others in similar circumstances. "Sitting at meals, you have to speak in Hebrew because you are mixing with all kinds of nationalities," he says.
Organized activities are offered once or twice a week. Otherwise the young people go out on their own, or they just stay in, sit and talk.
"Some nights we had really mad parties. We all clubbed together in the library and brought down our sound systems and booze... and the guards said that they noted an especial camaraderie among our particular group. In fact, when I returned to visit the Ulpan in later years, it seemed a lot quieter!" recalls Remeny.
According to the rules, visitors can't stay overnight. Nevertheless everyone became expert at smuggling friends in and keeping them under wraps.
When it was Remeny's turn to bring a friend however, things didn't work out all that smoothly. The friend arrived just after a big party when Remeny, while doing a Full Monty impression, had fallen off a chair and ended up twisting his ankle very badly.
"With all this it was pretty hard to sneak the friend in so I decided to take him on a break to the Sinai instead."
Music was also a part of the ulpan's social life Remeny and several other students had guitars. One night they had a massive jamming session.
"The Russians were drinking vodka and all was well with the world. At around 2 a.m. someone decided to complain to Shlomit. She came and everyone ran off and hid. It reminded me of being back at school," he says .
Altogether Remeny feels he made at least 10 "really close friends." He is in touch regularly with some and there are those he just bumps into in town. Remeny now works for a law firm and is using his Hebrew to study for his bar exams. His Russian girlfriend, whom he met in the ulpan, plays for the Young Philharmonic Orchestra.
Marc Rubunstein, 26, currently studying and living in the ulpan, is a TV producer who will eventually be looking for work in that field. "I am on the lookout for contacts," he says. "I am looking forward to working in Israeli television." Rubunstein explains that he had more family here than in Columbia and that he arrived on aliya with a cousin who is a doctor.
MIRIAM Moschytz, 35, immigrated from Zurich. She was at the ulpan five years ago and her sister was there in 1994. Miriam chose an apartment on Rehov Hapalmach instead of the dorms because she has plenty of family here and didn't feel she needed to create a support system.
Moschytz remembers she had "a fun class with people from South America, Australia and France; both religious and not." The teacher, Miri, was very good, she says. Moschytz was in the top class having already studied the language in Switzerland.
Every morning the class listened to the news in Hebrew. The students had to carry out assignments based on the news and received much homework assignments.
"We were expected to do at least one hour of homework a night and we were really told off by the teacher if we didn't."
Moschytz is now finishing a degree in Italian and German literature at the Hebrew University. She worries her Hebrew has deteriorated slightly.
"Perhaps it is homesickness, but Hebrew tires me," Moschytz says.
For the first couple of years she stayed more in touch with friends from ulpan. Although she is always happy to meet up again with someone from her course, "the life of an ole is time consuming and one's social life sort of goes down." Her class numbered 16 which was one of the larger classes. As soon as Moschytz finishes her degree she has a linguistic computing job waiting for her.
But not all is rosy. Some residents complain that the ulpan becomes like a summer camp for adults, which leads to complications when it comes to privacy and space.
A twentysomething recent graduate of the program says by the third month she couldn't stand the noise and dorm mentality. "Everyone is in each other's rooms all the time."
Besides that, some students complain that boredom sets in since morning classes keep them from full-time work. Some take on babysitting jobs while others wait on tables or serve at coffee shops. But may residents find themselves spending the day lounging in each other's rooms, says the recent graduate who didn't want her name used. "It's not a natural environment,"she says.
SHIFRA Marks was at Ulpan Etzion back in 1978. She recalls "it was for singles and married people without children, so there were no families. As far as I remember almost everybody was single. Some were very immature, obviously never having lived away from home before. Some were shocked that they had to share a room. Others, or maybe the same ones, were appalled at the food.
"Me? I was ecstatic that for $40 or perhaps £40 a month we had accommodation, food and tuition for five months. Having lived in the real world, I had something to compare it with," Marks says.
"What did these people expect? I had already lived away from home and knew it wouldn't be mother's cooking."
"It was just wonderful to sit down to a meal that I didn't have to prepare myself or clean up afterwards. I was not among those rioting when we had fish instead of meat. No kidding.
"And the language instruction? I didn't really need to work hard at the Hebrew. I know there were people in the beginners class who after five months knew no more than they did at the beginning, but whether that was a reflection on the teacher or the student I can't say."
Bernstein was on Ulpan Etzion from January to July 1999. "I chose this ulpan on the recommendation of the Jewish Agency. It had a good reputation," he says.
Bernstein lived out in an apartment, a choice which he later regretted, but by the time he signed up the dorms were all full.
He also had two teachers, one twice a week and one three times a week. "My vocabulary increased, but I feel I could have received more help in becoming more self-assured in speaking."
He found that the teachers spoke reasonably slowly and thus they did not accustom the students to hearing Hebrew spoken at regular speeds.
At Ulpan Etzion Bernstein met people who explained religion and Orthodoxy to him. Today he is Torah-observant. He made a couple of good friends, and some of his former classmates even work at the same place that he does.
"I remember we watched the election returns together in May 1999, the Leftists were happy and the Rightists were upset and that was a kind of bonding."
THE renowned author Ephraim Kishon first learned Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion and news anchor Haim Yavin taught there. "Wherever you go," says Pilzer, "you will meet graduates of Ulpan Etzion, particularly at Hadassah Hospital.
"Students volunteer for community services while on the ulpan. They feel they want to give," says Pilzer. "They participate in Mishmar Ha'ezrahi and they teach English at the local community center.
"Although some students know one or two others when they arrive, in principle everyone is here on his own," says Pilzer, "and here is where he finds his first family."
Pilzer had been teaching at Ulpan Drom Afrika, another Jewish Agency ulpan located in Kiryat Moriah, until 11 years ago. She then moved to Ulpan Etzion with the big wave of Russian immigrants.
Pilzer considers herself privileged to have worked with these massive immigration waves. "I feel I am in the center of things, that I am really involved in a place that doesn't only talk but also does," she says.
The walls of the Ulpan are lined with posters, notices, newspaper cuttings, and maps.
"The idea is to introduce everyone into Israeli society as best as possible," says Pilzer. "We are a starting point and we do our best to make it a very positive experience, the students do the rest."
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