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How an Immersive Hebrew Class Turned Its Students Into Global Citizens

How an Immersive Hebrew Class Turned Its Students Into Global Citizens

As I entered the third grade in secular school, I simultaneously enrolled in Hebrew school at Congregation Shalom, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Milwaukee, WI. At age 9, Hebrew school seemed like a rite of passage in preparation for becoming a bar mitzvah.

My synagogue offered a class called ulpan for students who wanted to work at their own pace and receive additional Hebrew enrichment. It was a perfect fit for me. At the time, I never could have imagined that 10 years later, I would be completing an ulpan program at Tel Aviv University. Ulpan, Hebrew for “instruction,” is a short-term Hebrew-language immersion program that has been offered in universities and on kibbutzim across Israel for more than 50 years.

After 90 hours of instruction, I left the Tel Aviv University ulpan program with far more than enhanced Hebrew skills. My ulpan class was truly a living laboratory of klal Yisrael, Jewish peoplehood.

The class was diverse in every way. The program included Jewish students of every variety: Reform, Conservative, secular, observant, non-observant, Zionist, atheist. On one extreme was a recent high school graduate taking a gap year in Israel for self-discovery, and on the other end was a 60-year-old Swiss man preparing to make aliyah (move to) to Israel, fulfilling a lifelong dream of living in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. The 20 students in my class represented nearly 10 countries, at least five native languages, and 20 entirely unique expressions of Judaism.

In between learning verb conjugations and spelling nuances, the diversity of our class emerged. In fragmented Hebrew, we shared our Jewish experiences and communities with one another, and, as our Hebrew developed, so too did our appreciation for one another’s connections to Judaism and to Israel.

It was a special moment when an American student who had not been inside a synagogue in more than 10 years was able to recognize a word from her bat mitzvah Torah portion. It was incredible when a Spanish student was able to decode the meaning and roots of his Hebrew name. It was holy when an unassuming workbook exercise evolved into the opportunity to learn just a little more about the Jewish communities in Zurich, Frankfurt, Toronto, and Chicago.

We left ulpan as global Jewish citizens.

Though formal class ended at 1:00 p.m. each day, our education continued far beyond the walls of the classroom. We learned where the best hummus in Tel Aviv is hidden. We learned which bus runs from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and exactly how many shekalim it costs. We learned where to welcome Shabbat as Reform Jews in Tel Aviv. We learned about Baha’i pilgrimages to Haifa. We learned about being Christian in Bethlehem and Muslim in Ramallah, both places we visited. Israel is holy for millions of people of all faiths and while this too often creates friction, it is also humbling and unique and reinforces our obligation to serve as ambassadors to coexistence.

We left ulpan as participants in an important pluralistic conversation.

We enrolled in ulpan to learn modern Hebrew. We had no idea that in four weeks, one teacher could transform a classroom of English, Spanish, French, German, and Dutch speakers into Hebrew speakers. From ordering in a restaurant to grocery shopping in the shuk (outdoor market), ulpan prepared us to engage with Israel in an entirely new way. Hebrew was the key to unlocking Israel as more than a tourist. Our Hebrew vocabulary grew ten-fold as did the authenticity in the way we dialoged with our classmates and the Israelis we met each day.

We left ulpan as locals.

In all, we left ulpan with a deepened affection toward the global Jewish community, the specialness of the land of Israel, and the unifying ability of the Hebrew language.

The four weeks I spent at Tel Aviv University were transformational, eye-opening, and fulfilling. Despite living 6,000 miles away, my connection to Israel is stronger and deeper than ever. I left ulpan with a renewed personal commitment and dedication to a strong and robust klal Yisrael –  one that starts in Israel and extends to every Jewish community around the globe.

Andrew Keene is a member of the management committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Andrew Keene
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