Eilat Elkana Ben Aharon teaches Hebrew at the Rothberg International School (RIS). She is also director of HebrewU’s summer ulpan and a former director of the school’s teacher training program. She holds a master’s degree in Hebrew language and language editing, and a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history.
Reviving a Language
As an instructor at RIS since 1993, Ben Aharon has taught hundreds of students to speak Hebrew. But recently, she faced a new challenge: helping teach a language she doesn’t speak herself.
A few years ago, representatives of the Sami minority delegation from Norway contacted Ben Aharon and her colleagues at HebrewU, looking for guidance in reviving their language. “The Norwegian government used to have very strict laws against Sami culture, and they were not allowed to use their language for hundreds of years,” she explains. Those rules have since changed, but several Sami languages had already disappeared, and others had only a few speakers left.
“They talked with the Gaelic people, who told them, ‘Well, we learned from Israel. Go study the ulpan method.’ They went all the way to New Zealand and talked to the Maori and they told them the same,” Ben Aharon says.
When the Sami delegation first reached out, she says, “We thought we would meet them just once.” But that first meeting led to several years of collaboration, with HebrewU staff members and Sami instructors visiting each other in Israel and Norway to design new workbooks and other teaching materials. “We tried to show them as many kinds of ulpan lessons and experiences as possible – in order for them to feel the method,” Ben Aharon says. “It’s not just theory. It’s something you’ve got to experience.”
The biggest change for the Sami, she says, is a focus on grammar as a tool. “We believe grammar is the means to communication. The main motto of our method is communicative language,” Ben Aharon says. And it’s working: “[Sami] children are willing to speak more with their parents at home, and the teachers feel more secure in what they’re doing … It’s very exciting.”
While the Sami language was new to Ben Aharon and her colleagues, the spirit of innovation they brought to the project was not. “Because we have different levels of Hebrew, and very diverse students from different places, backgrounds, and ages – we have a very diverse job,” she explains.
Ben Aharon’s students have a broad range of skills and experience – of the six levels of Hebrew offered at RIS, she regularly teaches four. And, she says, “There’s also diversity in the way that people study … For some students, the audio is easier; for others, the reading is easier. We try to bring all the different skills into the same lesson, so it can reach each one.”
“The atmosphere in our work and our team is to try to be creative all the time, not repeat what we’ve done,” she says. That might mean trying a new textbook, or using a recent news story to connect the day’s lesson to the world outside the classroom. “We want Hebrew to be a live language … We’re continuously thinking about how to make class connected to what’s happening in life itself.”
Ben Aharon says she also gets to see those connections happen when she takes groups of ulpan students on guided tours of Jerusalem in Hebrew. “It’s outside of class, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I understand Hebrew not only from my teacher, but from someone else.’” She recently talked with one former RIS student who said of a tour, “I remember that was the first time I realized that I understood Hebrew – without trying to!”
Ben Aharon says the diversity of RIS is one of her favorite things about the job. “For example, we now have many Korean students, which we didn’t have 20 years ago. There are many Arab students now, when there weren’t as many before … The demography of our school is changing, and that’s fun, seeing that.” She says it gives students a chance to form bonds they might otherwise miss: “It’s a really international community … We can have an Orthodox Jew and a nun and a devout Muslim, all sitting in one class. And although we try to connect between the outside world and the classroom, in this sense we’re disconnected from the problems around us. When you see friendships forming between Arabs and Jews, it’s really heartwarming, and I think it’s a unique opportunity for students.”
And, she says, RIS is a special place for instructors as well. “It’s always exciting. I think we’re very lucky to work in a place where the atmosphere is constantly new and innovative … Most people at RIS are very idealistic about their work; they’re doing something that they like and they think is important. That makes it a great place to work.”
- Teaching certificate, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010)
- Master’s degree in Hebrew language and language editing, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2009)
- Diploma in teaching Hebrew as a second language, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1993)
- Bachelor’s degree in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1991)