Ulpan Bayit: “We Want Our Students to Be Themselves, In Hebrew”

Following the first quarantine, Ulpan Bayit, a renowned Hebrew school in Tel Aviv, reinvented itself through online Hebrew courses and evolved into a vibrant and interconnected online community. “During the pandemic our Tel Aviv Hebrew school turned into interactive online courses,” says the school’s founder Yaron Sivan

Nathalie Cohen Sheffer, Partnered with Ulpan Bayit
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Nathalie Cohen Sheffer, Partnered with Ulpan Bayit
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Back in 2014, Hebrew teacher Yaron Sivan and soon-to-be famous comedian girlfriend, Tom Yaar, sat in their living room and brainstormed different income streams. Sivan, a certified Hebrew as a second language teacher, decided to teach Hebrew to a few friends from abroad. "It was fun, we used to sit in our living room and teach them Hebrew, unlike my former teaching experiences which were very formal. This was the catalyst that changed our lives” says Sivan.

These small groups of students would learn Hebrew through theatrics, pictures, conversations, and laughter - all which would set the stage for Ulpan Bayit’s interactive methodology and vibrant community. The Ulpan has since grown dramatically and is a home today to scores of alumni and dozens of teachers.

Thousands of students

Ulpan Bayit has become a home to thousands of students that have come to Israel to study Hebrew and immerse themselves in the Israeli society, culture and workforce. Ulpan Bayit is a private, non-governmental, Hebrew school located in the hip neighborhood of Florentine, Tel Aviv.

A sing along outside post covid

Each of the 30 teachers at the Ulpan are certified through the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Hebrew Teaching Training Program. As a multidisciplinary person himself, Yaron Sivan, a chef, translator, musician, and of course a Hebrew teacher, is proud to provide a platform for the teachers to show their impressive multifaceted talents. The teachers at Ulpan Bayit are more than just Hebrew teachers. They are musicians, actors, speech therapists, poets, dancers, and more! Not only is the staff made up of linguistically gifted and creative teachers, but Sivan encourages his staff to study another language in order to improve their own curriculums and to embody and remember what it feels like to be a student (so far they’ve studied Russian, Arabic, advanced English, and are currently studying Israeli sign language).

The demographic of students at Ulpan Bayit is wildly diverse, with students in every age and who come from all over the globe; from Japan to Iran, South Africa, and India, Germany, the UK, and Italy, all nationalities and ages are welcome. The student body is composed of unique people from different backgrounds (partners of Israelis, those interested in making Aliyah, academics, diplomats, and those who like learning a new language). Ulpan Bayit also works with high-tech companies like WalkMe and Radware, and holds an online course for the Jewish community in Vancouver, Canada.

Full immersion - learn Hebrew in Hebrew

Ulpan Bayit teaches modern Hebrew to students from around the world based on the immersion technique, meaning classes are taught in Hebrew from the very beginning levels. Each online Zoom course is made up of a small group of 8 students who study together twice a week for 10 weeks. Not only do the students learn in an interactive online class, but they are also able to enrich their studies with endless amounts of outside materials like the Ulpan Bayit podcast, online magazine, Spotify playlists, Instagram, and monthly online events.

Classroom discussions

Ulpan Bayit’s teachers don’t teach according to a set in stone script. They are encouraged to implement their vast personal experiences to the class, making sure that no class is the same. “We keep diversifying our curriculum,” says Sivan. “We want to create a high-end experience that is unique to the teacher’s background and passions.” The extracurricular activities include memory training and speech therapy for the improvement of one’s accent, taught by Pelleg Halfin, Ulpan Bayit's pedagogical manager. “We understand that the Israeli accent is complex and contains many different inflections and pronunciations, but we aim for our students to speak with confidence, like Israelis,” she says.

COVID-19 as a catalyst for change

When COVID-19 and the pandemic began, Ulpan Bayit underwent drastic changes and, like the rest of the world, was catapulted into changing the way that things were once done. Students that were registered to in-person courses were suddenly canceling due to the pandemic. Sivan notes that “When the first quarantine was announced in Israel it caught us and all of our students off guard. We thought about our alumni, who were sitting at home all day, struggling through the lockdown, and we decided to send out a newsletter to see who was interested in online Hebrew courses. The interest was unlike any other that we’ve seen, and we taught daily Hebrew courses to more students than we have ever!

Learning together

Through those first online classes we have since learned what it means to provide online courses, and even more so, what it means to grow a community that we once believed to only exist within the physical boundaries of the Ulpan. The online courses provided our students a deserved break from the reality of the pandemic, and allowed us to create a global community and to continue to provide to those abroad what we do best here in Tel Aviv, which is teaching Hebrew. In hindsight, the move to zoom was a blessing in disguise and was an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves.”

“Now that the restrictions have been removed, many of our online students have decided to join one another, and meet for the first time face-to-face in our upcoming summer courses in Tel Aviv” adds Ulpan Bayit Manager, Ilan Rubin Fields.

How learning online is superb

The Ulpan places a special emphasis on the accessibility and intimacy of the online experience. “Studying online made it possible for us to have our students share their lives with us and do things that weren’t possible in a physical setting,” says Sivan. “For example, when learning about food the students could go to the fridge and learn as a class the relevant vocabulary. What could have been an alienated environment due to the pandemic and physical distance between people, turned out to be quite the opposite. It’s not just a lecture happening in front of a computer, it was a way for us to connect through lessons, cultural panels, movie showings, and slang events

Graduation

Kathrin P. who started her studies in Tel Aviv and has since completed three more online courses after returning to Germany, says she was skeptical as to how effective the Zoom courses would be. “After a few days of adjusting to this new teaching method I had the most satisfactory and lovely learning experience,” she says. “Apart from making massive progress in my Hebrew studies in a friendly, relaxing, and fun international and inter-generational setting, I also made new friends with whom I intend to keep in touch in the future. In fact, I am so happy with the online course that I decided to continue my studies in a 6-week evening course while I start my new job.”

Hebrew Courses onlineCredit: Ulpan Bayit, Tel-Aviv - אולפן בית, תל אביב

Motivation is key

Sivan founded the school after teaching in numerous other language schools and understanding that motivation was one of the most important components in learning a language. “How do we preserve high motivation in an experience that could potentially be quite boring or frustrating?” he asks. “We do this by making sure our classes remain small, our content remains interesting and surprising.” Classes open up monthly, so that students are able to divide the learning process into small chunks and are not forced to learn continuously for months and months in a row, and finding a starting date is always easily done, even for advanced students.

Seder

The Ulpan Bayit ethos is one of acceptance and inclusion through the Hebrew language. In addition to formal Hebrew classes, the Ulpan and its teachers give Hebrew courses to Palestinian doctors who come to Israeli hospitals from Gaza and the Palestinian territories. “We feel that we are on a mission,” says Sivan. “We are among the first Israelis they’ve ever talked to.” Recently, Ulpan Bayit started to teach Ukrainian refugees who have fled their homes due to conflict. “Learning a language is both social and political,” says Rubin Fields. “It is very important to us to promote good in the world through our teachings and instill some of the values that we believe in. Learning a language is not a static thing, it evolves and changes over time.” Sivan agrees. “We love that our classes have become a forum for people to express themselves on different topics and engage in an open discourse with one another. This connection offers a foundation for learning and helps us to become better people.”

Partnered with Ulpan Bayit