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With Ulpan-Or, local students gain fluency in Hebrew

Jewish day schools pack so many subjects into a long school day that Hebrew language instruction often is given a back seat. Teachers are always seeking ways to squeeze better conversational fluency out of limited classroom time.

With that goal in mind, Torah Academy of Bergen County hosted a four-hour June workshop, “High-Tech Hebrew,” run by the co-founders of Israel’s Ulpan-Or, attended by 30 educators and administrators from the Frisch School, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, the Moriah School, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, and Westchester Hebrew High School.

Ulpan-Or, based in Jerusalem for the past 20 years, teaches Hebrew – through a proprietary method called rapid language acquisition – to groups in Jerusalem and in Tel-Aviv, one-on-one and online. About 10,000 students have taken part in various Ulpan-Or programs.

Three years ago, it introduced a web-based Hebrew study program for middle- and high-school classrooms that now is in place at Ramaz, the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and SAR, in addition to schools in Chicago, Florida, California, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

“We have found that teachers are often deprived of technological advances in teaching Hebrew,” said Yoel Ganor, who runs Ulpan-Or with his wife, Orly.

“A few years ago it was nice to have the technology, but these days it’s a must-have, and we can help with both methodology and technology. That was the purpose of the workshops,” which were held coast to coast.

The central product for schools is “E-tone” (a play on the Hebrew word “iton,” newspaper), a multimedia online publication emailed weekly to each student subscriber. It includes four current events articles, usually topped by the latest development in Israel. Once a month, Ulpan-Or runs a contest among all subscribing schools to submit their own articles, and the best entry is added as a fifth item in the following edition.

Ganor explained that E-tone is prepared in separate editions for different levels. Audio, video, text, songs, and English translation can be played at varying speeds to suit the individual user’s comprehension level. It can be accessed via iPod, smart phone, or computerdevices virtually every student already owns – allowing them to take their Hebrew lessons with them wherever they go.

“This is the platform on which we deliver our material so students can use it with enthusiasm for the sake of studying Hebrew,” Ganot said. “Since they love using these gadgets, they love studying Hebrew. And because kids use these devices at home, it becomes a family activity to watch E-tone together.”

Students can create digital flashcards from each edition’s vocabulary list by recording themselves or their teachers pronouncing the words. Some classes act out the articles in E-tone.

Ganor told the workshop participants that they do not have to be tech experts to guide classes in using Ulpan-Or materials. “They learned that the students will do it enthusiastically because this is their natural realm.”

Anat Brayer, now starting her 18th year as a Hebrew language teacher at TABC, said that she was intrigued by Ulpan-Or’s presentation. “I think they invested a great deal of work into their program. E-tone could be good for our school,” she said.

However, she added, adopting the multimedia tool is likely to make only “a little difference” because the core problem is that the students simply do not have enough time in their schedules to learn Hebrew properly. “It’s not that we’re missing material or teachers. What we’re missing is the time we invest in exposing the kids to the Hebrew language.

“It’s very hard when you meet three times a week, and every other week four times, for 40 minutes. It’s nothing. The rest of their lives are not [conducted] in Hebrew. You would have to be a magician in order to make it a conversational language for them.”

Following a trend started by Ben-Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School in Paramus, several area Jewish grade schools have been addressing this issue by hiring visiting Israeli National Service volunteers or professional Israeli teachers to spend a year or two in residence. Their sole purpose is talking to students only in Hebrew and planning Hebrew-language events. Some schools have made a greater effort to find teachers who can convey Jewish studies material in Hebrew rather than English.

Brayer, a native Israeli, said she does notice greater conversational skills among students from schools where these immersive programs are in place. But she believes that most of her students can become truly fluent in Hebrew only “if they come to Israel and they have it in their belly. I don’t believe using a particular [product] will make that difference for us. You have to learn it in Israel, when everything around you is in Hebrew.”

Ganor would not disagree, but contends that it’s not an either-or proposition. Graduates of high schools using Ulpan-Or methods tell him they “feel more at home” when they come to Israel for their gap year. “We find that they relate better, communicating with Israelis very fluently,” Ganor said.

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