Not Your Typical OOlpan: Program Helps New Immigrants Learn 'Real' Hebrew

A hip, new Hebrew-language study program avoids textbooks and classrooms to focus on more important things – such as ordering a cup of coffee like a true Israeli.

Efrat Chen (center right) teaching one of the Oolpan classes.
Tamar Pross

Lesson No. 1: Ordering your favorite beverage at the neighborhood café.

Lesson No. 2: Getting directions to the beach.

Lesson No. 3: Finding out whether the vendor at the local arts-and-crafts market accepts credit cards or just cash.

Forget everything you knew until now about Hebrew-language immersion classes – also known as “ulpan.” At OOlpan (“oo” as in Google – get it?) the emphasis is on all the words and phrases necessary for enjoying life in Tel Aviv to the utmost.

No textbooks in this brand new Hebrew-language program. No tedious drills in verb conjugations. There aren’t even proper classrooms. OOlpan students gather twice a week at a popular café on Tel Aviv’s storied Dizengoff Street where, after ordering their “hafuch” (Hebrew for latte) just like the natives, they go straight into conversational Hebrew.

The goal, says Tamar Pross, a partner in the new initiative, is to make sure that once they’ve completed the eight-week course, these newly-minted “citizens” of Israel – she prefers that term to immigrants – have enough basic Hebrew to mingle with the locals without feeling “stupid.”

“There are incredible challenges in moving to any new city, the first one being language,” notes Pross, an Australian-Israeli who has moved around herself quite a bit over the years. After stints in New York, Paris, London and Sydney, she returned to what she calls “the world’s sexiest city” eight years ago.

“We see our job as teaching our students more precise and practical Hebrew for use in daily life, whether that means work or socializing.”

The classic ulpan program, a rite of passage for many immigrants to Israel, has not changed much over the years. Offered free-of-charge, it is in most cases an intensive, five-month language immersion program that meets five days a week for a hefty chunk of each day, making it virtually impossible to work at the same time. In general, the classes are large, and the approach to teaching is based heavily on textbooks.

Even the government has begun to understand – belatedly – that the commitment required and the style of teaching in the traditional ulpan doesn’t work for everyone. Earlier this year, as part of a new program aimed at boosting immigration from France, Belgium and Ukraine, it agreed to provide immigrants from these three countries – where Jews are seen to be under mounting security threats – with vouchers they can use to finance alternative Hebrew-language study programs if ulpan doesn’t suit them.

Tamar Pross, founder of Citizen Café, a group that organizes the Oolpan courses.
Tamar Pross

OOlpan, which began on a small scale earlier this year, is planning its major breakout in 2016, with a host of new classes at various language proficiency levels, along with specialized workshops devoted to topics that span the gamut of paying your bills, negotiating a taxi ride, and communicating with your child’s pre-school teacher. The classes are small, with no more than eight students in each, and the 90-minute lessons are held at the tail ends of the day for the benefit of working people. The price of the entire course is 2,300 shekels ($590).

In launching this project, Pross has teamed up with Efrat Chen, a well-known private Hebrew teacher whose clients over the years have included diplomats, journalists and foreign-born CEOs. The program is an offshoot of Citizen Café TLV, a venture founded by Pross that offers workshops and talks that target Tel Aviv’s growing international community.

“We’re talking about people who are drawn to Tel Aviv because it’s the capital of the startup nation. Many are divorcees in search of a new Jewish spouse or partner and some are simply attracted to the healthy lifestyle of the city – the weather, the food and the beaches,” says Pross, whose past experiences included producing two documentary films about Gilad Shalit, Israel’s most famous hostage, and 10 years in the global lifestyle and concierge business.

Most OOlpan students, says Pross, are already working in jobs that require English or other foreign-language skills, and make little, if any, use of Hebrew at work. Their language needs, therefore, tend to be very specific: communicating with Israeli spouses and friends, going about their daily errands, and taking advantage of the cultural and culinary opportunities a city like Tel Aviv has to offer. “

“These are sophisticated, worldly people who have made Tel Aviv their home because they love what the city has to offer, but unfortunately, they can’t help but feel challenged by the language,” she notes.

Some have little, if any, knowledge of Hebrew, though the vast majority are ulpan graduates or dropouts. Most are English-speakers, though representatives of other segments of Tel Aviv’s diverse international community – French-, Italian- and Spanish-speakers, for example – can also be found among them.

Briana Antman began the course two months ago, not long after moving to Israel from Boston to take up a job teaching English as a second language at the British Council. “I know exactly what I like when it comes to language teaching methods, and ulpan was definitely not for me,” she says. “This, on the other hand, felt very organic and natural. For me, what was most important was that when I walked out of class, I could feel a bit more confident about using my Hebrew.”

Nikki Fenton, a former Londoner, has been in Israel much longer. “Since I first moved here eight years ago, I’ve tried everything – ulpan, Hebrew classes at university, private lessons – you name it, I’ve tried it,” says Fenton, who is married to an Israeli.

Fortunately for her, running an event-planning business in Tel Aviv hasn’t required any great knowledge of Hebrew, so she has been able to get by. “Still, it’s very frustrating when I’m unable to get across to Israelis as I’d like to,” she says.

Since joining OOlpan in October, she says, a certain barrier has been broken. “I find myself engaging in conversation in Hebrew with my husband’s family over Shabbat lunch, something I never did before,” she says, “and I’ve even started talking to my suppliers at work in Hebrew – not switching to English when they answer me in English.”