Jackie Gebel, 24, of New York spontaneously decided to move to Israel for a month in November 2013. “I needed a change of scenery,” she explains to ISRAEL21c. “I had only been to Israel once before, on Birthright, and everyone said I should take a Hebrew class. I had basic reading skills but not conversation.”
How much of the spoken language could Gebel expect to pick up in ulpan (the Hebrew term for an intensive language class) during the two-week period she allotted? After Googling around, she signed up for a one-on-one crash course at UlpanOr, one of a few private Hebrew-teaching companies that offer classes for short-term visitors.
“It is possible for people with no prior knowledge of Hebrew – Jews and Christians – to learn reading, writing and verbal communication in a week,” says Yoel Ganor, who cofounded UlpanOr with his wife, Orly, in 1995.
UlpanOr’s one-week Sabra Hebrew Immersion Program, held in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, consists of three hours of one-on-one study in the morning and another two or three hours of interactive outdoor activities in the afternoon, such as a visit to a café. Other options include a VIP course with a cultural element such as Hebrew theater or music.
Gebel didn’t expect to become fluent in two weeks, and she didn’t. But she made great progress. “The amount of Hebrew I learned let me speak in the shuk [marketplace] and ask simple questions, even make simple conversation,” she says.
The Ganors devised the course after studying how Europeans are able to learn several languages fluently though listening and observing.
“Verbal communication is key, and our methodology is based on that,” says Ganor. “Another element is introducing language not in an academic manner but at eye level, providing opportunities to use the vocabulary immediately in real settings. We saw this process does not have to take several months.”
Ulpan Aviv, also with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv locations, assures tourists that they can complete one level of Hebrew though an intensive, tailor-made program of 10 one-on-one sessions, each lasting two and a half hours in the morning or afternoon, spread over a two-week period.
“It is very good for tourists, even those just wanting to get the sound of the language and a little bit of the culture,” co-owner Gil Pentzak tells ISRAEL21c.
The course alternates between conversation with the teacher and guided self-study assignments involving reading, writing or listening. Pentzak estimates that at least 35 percent of Ulpan Aviv’s clients opt for this crash course founded in July 2009, and they include Jews, Christians and Arabs of all ages who either are short-term tourists or need to learn Hebrew quickly for professional or personal reasons.
“The schedule and materials are tailor-made and can involve music, culture, Bible — anything at all, according to the interests and preferences of the individual student,” says Pentzak.
Ulpan Israeli in Netanya offers a customized group option for learning Hebrew in a hurry.
Director Frida Fisher says she and her other teachers work with tour groups, business people, families and even athletic delegations from all over the world in groups of one to six at a time, provided they are all on the same level.
“The course can be as long as they want — one week or two or three,” Fisher tells ISRAEL21c. “For example, I have a group from Finland that wants to come for three weeks. We’ll work with them from 9 to 12:30 on the weekday mornings before their day trips.”
Clients can choose to have their lessons in the classroom, at their hotel, in a touring bus or in everyday settings.
Fisher once did a culinary ulpan for a British family who were renting a house for the summer in Herzliya. They went to market together and prepared meals in the kitchen, all the while interacting in Hebrew to give the family appropriate vocabulary for buying, slicing, chopping, cooking, frying and baking a variety of edibles.
Retaining what they have learned is a different issue. Jackie Gebel admits she lost much of her Hebrew after a few months back in New York.
Ganor of UlpanOr encourages “graduates” of crash courses to continue studying via guided distance-learning courses after they’ve gone home. There are numerous online options, such as Hebrew Podcasts and Learn Hebrew Phrases with Audio, a free site offering 1,215 Hebrew phrases and sentences grouped under 43 topics, with 157 printable study sheets.
“Hebrew is an objective by itself, but we also see ourselves as ambassadors of Hebrew as a national language that brings Jews closer to their identity, and brings all our students closer to Israeli culture,” says Ganor.