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Eilat Elkana Ben Aharon

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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.”

Innovative Approach

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!”

International Community

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)

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  • Moshe Amirav

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    Moshe Amirav is a professor of political science at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS) and a world expert on the conflict in Jerusalem. He is the author of several books, including “Jerusalem Syndrome: The Palestinian-Israeli Battle for the Holy City.” Prof. Amirav holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and Jewish history, a master’s degree in urban administration and a doctorate in political geography.

    Personal Perspective

    The subject Prof. Amirav teaches is a personal one – “my beloved city of Jerusalem,” he calls it, where his own story began. At 18 years of age, he served as a paratrooper in the Six-Day War and was wounded in the battle for Jerusalem, and he has served in various government positions in the decades since. In 2001, for example, Amirav attended the Camp David negotiations as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, leading a committee that envisioned a political settlement in Jerusalem, with the city serving as a dual capital for both Israel and Palestine.

    “I tried in all these conversations to bring peace to this city that is called in the Bible the City of Peace, but is really a city of war and conflict,” he says. “For me, Jerusalem is not just an academic subject. It’s something that I live, that I hope.”

    That hope, Amirav says, is what sets him apart as a teacher: “I love the city, and I am the only optimist who is actually in Israel … I always say that what makes me special is not that I’m a great lecturer. It’s that I am part of the story of Jerusalem.” Much of what he shares in his classes comes from his own experience. “In the end of our course, I give a lecture which is a very personal one – how do I see the future of Jerusalem?”

    Conflict in Context

    To help students understand the story of – and problems facing – Jerusalem, as well as his own love for the city, Amirav takes them out of the classroom for multiple tours.

    “I’m taking them to the place where the city was divided … and I’m telling them, ‘As a young paratrooper, as I was standing right here, 30 meters from me was a Jordanian legionnaire, and we were guarding the same city. He was guarding the Jordanian part, and I was guarding the Israeli part,’” he says. “Later on, I take them to the place where I was fighting … and tell them the story of the 1967 big victory of Israel.”

    Amirav divides these class trips into what he calls the “three cities that are hidden in Jerusalem. One is my city, the Zionist and secular city … Then I take them to the Jewish Orthodox part of Jerusalem, which is like another world … And then I take them to the Arab city in Jerusalem.”

    After each tour, Amirav and his students return to the classroom to discuss what they’ve seen – and put it in context. “We compare these three cities that we just saw in one city, and then compare it to other cities in conflict … I’m trying to give my students the feeling that actually, all the conflicts are the same.”

    From there, they translate what they’ve learned into conflict resolution: “What’s the solution? How do we solve it?” Amirav says he offers his students the same example he once gave US President Bill Clinton: “In the middle of Rome is another country, another flag, of the Vatican … And it’s peace in Rome. It can be peace in Jerusalem, and that’s my vision, that’s my dream.”

    Amirav also takes students outside of Jerusalem – to the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, as well as on a tour of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The goal, he says, “is more than just learning; it’s experience … Knowledge is important, but it’s not the most important thing. If they come all the way to Jerusalem, I want them to go home with the experience.”

    International Environment

    The fact that his students come to Jerusalem from all over the world, Amirav says, makes teaching at RIS particularly special. “They come from Tokyo, San Francisco, Spain, you name it … When they speak in the class, they tell about themselves and the places which they come from, so this brings immediately a kind of different feeling in the class – that we are international.”

    Amirav says that global perspective adds fascinating layers to class discussions – and to group assignments as well. “I take two students: one is from Toronto and one is from, let’s say, Paris, and I like them to together do a paper … comparing these three cities – Jerusalem and their cities.” The result helps his students gain new insight into not only Israel, but their home countries and the world at large. “I feel I am doing something which is very, very meaningful … and I have a lot of satisfaction. I love my students.”


    • Doctorate in political geography, London School of Economics (1994)
    • Master’s degree in urban administration, New York University (1973)
    • Bachelor’s degree in political science and Jewish history, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1971)

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    Chaya Fischer

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    Chaya Fischer is an academic writing and Hebrew instructor and the director of the Language Center at Hebrew University. She also teaches, designs curriculum and assessment methodologies, and provides training and mentoring at the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem, and is an associate editor for the interdisciplinary academic journal Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas. Fischer has a master’s degree in English literature and a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and English literature and linguistics.

    Innovative Thinking

    During a recent visit to HebrewU’s Rothberg International School (RIS) by a group of teachers in training from Europe, Fischer asked the young students to describe their common practices – classrooms, standards, testing – and discuss the reasons behind them. “Their bottom line was, ‘That’s how it works,’ or ‘That’s how this test is,’” she says. “‘We can’t do that in our course, because there isn’t enough time.’”

    So she asked them to think critically about what they could change – what they might be able to do differently to solve the problems they faced.

    “When I hear an answer like, ‘That’s just the way it is,’ … I prefer to say, ‘Okay, what would you want to do?’” she says. “And then figure out the way to do it. … We can’t change the amount of time we have in class, but we change how we structure our classes to make room for more to get done.”

    Fischer’s interest in the way people think goes back to her time as an undergraduate student at HebrewU, when she studied cognitive science alongside English literature and linguistics. After earning her master’s degree, she started teaching both Hebrew and English.

    At the time, she says, “a lot of these skills were taught more based on current habits than some sort of overall rationale … So there was a lot of room to innovate and create new materials.” Eventually, Fischer created a new program in the English Department for teaching language and academic writing.

    New Center, New Methods

    Today, Fischer is the director of HebrewU’s new Language Center – the hub of a university-wide effort to reinvigorate language studies and align each program with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The framework uses six levels, similar to those used in the Hebrew ulpan program at RIS, to establish common standards of competencies across all languages. “It turns out that what the ulpan invented on its own closely corresponds to what came out of the Cambridge Research Center, and turned into an official standard methodology,” Fischer explains. That methodology will now be used for the other major languages taught at HebrewU – French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic.

    Fischer says that in addition to guidance from HebrewU’s central European partner, the Language Center at Freie Universität Berlin, she and her colleagues are working closely with the ulpan to transform each program’s approach. “The ulpan has opened its doors to these teachers who come and observe classes … We just need to learn from them, and they’re right here on campus.”

    Language teachers are now gradually transferring from their departments to the Language Center, and working together as a professional group. “They identify first as language teachers, even if they teach different languages,” Fischer says. “We’re forming a professional community where we can interact with each other, and retrain and experiment together.”

    Fischer says that spirit of cooperation has grown exponentially in just a few months. While some of her colleagues were initially skeptical, “I now meet the same people, and they’re like ‘Wow, this is cool.’ That’s exciting, to go from ‘Eh, things don’t change’ to ‘You know what? Actually, it wasn’t that hard.’”

    And, she says, the difference for students is already clear: “It’s really exciting to walk into a classroom now – just in the second or third week of the semester – and see students speaking the language that they’re learning. That is the big revolution here.”

    In the Classroom

    While her work at the new Language Center keeps her busy, Fischer continues to teach as well. “I think it’s really important within the teacher training process not to lose touch with the students themselves,” she says. “I’ll have to be dragged out of the classroom!” Fischer says experimenting with new approaches is a critical part of her work, both as a teacher and for the center. “If I don’t test it out in my own classrooms, I don’t feel comfortable asking other teachers to do it. So I’m always trying to set an example, and to see what works and doesn’t work.”

    Fischer sees each semester as a teacher as another adventure: “Every three-and-a-half months, you meet new students … And every person is a new experience.” Her favorite class? Aleph, the first level of the Hebrew ulpan, where “we get to see the miracle happen. People with no background in Hebrew whatsoever … leave this course where they can speak, read, write, understand people. It’s very, very cool.”


    • Master’s degree in English Literature, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2013)
    • Teaching certificate in English and Hebrew as a Second Language, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2006)
    • Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science and English Literature and Linguistics, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2006)

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    Alexandra Herfroy-Mischler

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    Alexandra Herfroy-MischlerProf. Alexandra Herfroy-Mischler lectures on the topics of counter-terrorism, new media, and Jewish history at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS). She is also a research fellow at HebrewU’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and has twice been honored with the university’s Highest Teaching Distinction. Prof. Herfroy-Mischler holds doctoral and master’s degrees in media studies, as well as a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

    Digging Deeper

    Prof. Herfroy-Mischler’s involvement in media began as a practitioner: she worked in broadcast and print journalism in her home country of France, and completed an internship with the Swiss Press Agency. Her experiences eventually led her to dig deeper – and investigate not just the news itself, but how the news is made.

    “That’s where the whole Ph.D. started … my doctorate was about comparing media coverage in French, German, and English about Holocaust transitional justice in Europe,” she explains. Her dissertation assessed how news agencies covered the story of the World Jewish Congress lawsuits filed against Swiss banks – over dormant bank accounts that held the funds of Holocaust victims.

    Though she maintains a busy teaching schedule, Dr. Herfroy-Mischler’s research has continued since she joined the faculty at HebrewU. One recent project began in a classroom at RIS – with one of her students, Andrew Barr. She helped him develop a seminar on how ISIS uses execution videos as media strategy – and after his semester ended, they continued the study as partners, publishing two papers in the top-ranked journals “Studies of Conflict and Terrorism” and “Visual Communication.”

    Prof. Herfroy-Mischler’s latest project focuses on how the language used in media coverage of peace negotiations influences outcomes. Often, she says, “it’s basically saying … ‘We need to wait until someone else comes along and saves the situation,’ or ‘We need to wait until the actors change.’ It’s done a lot in despair.” She believes such coverage can be dangerous “because it puts us in a situation where we have this nihilistic way of looking at conflict … But we believe what makes us human is that we want to fight for peace and resolution.”

    In the Classroom

    Prof. Herfroy-Mischler credits her interest in academia to one of her own teachers. “She changed my life … she believed in me, and she saw in me what I could never see,” she explains. “I wanted to pay this back to students … So if one or two have been challenged and want to study more, then I think I won.”

    And, she says, she learns from her students as well – particularly in her class on blogging and social media. “Some of them already have a blog that is quite impressive, and they will teach me some technical tricks and new media things that happen.” She also encourages students to raise questions about what they study in class. “That’s why they came here, and that’s why I’m here … I might ask them to look for examples of things that contradict what we’ve studied, or things that illustrate what we’re saying … There is a lot of discussion, a lot of debate … Sometimes I feel like I’m more like a mediator of knowledge than teaching straightforward theory.”

    Prof. Herfroy-Mischler says helping her students learn and explore is a “joy” – and she believes education is a gift. “We need educated people in the world, and … we live in a generation where it’s kind of easy to get an education. It’s open to everyone, more or less,” she says. “We should really enjoy that.”

    Teaching at RIS

    Prof. Herfroy-Mischler says it’s particularly special to be teaching at RIS. “It really feels like home, because I was a student at RIS during my doctorate,” she explains. “I got to know the faculty, and I thought to myself, ‘This is the place where I can see myself teaching.’”

    Part of what she enjoys about the school is the international community – her classes are made up of students from all over the world, from China to Belgium to Turkey. That diversity of experience helps Prof. Herfroy-Mischler and her students better understand cultures beyond their own. For example, she says, “I once had a student ask, ‘What is YouTube?’ on the first day of class.” She used the question as an opportunity to teach the class about censorship on the web.

    RIS, Prof. Herfroy-Mischler says, is different from everywhere else she’s been as a teacher or as a student – and she hopes to stay for “a very, very long time … There is nothing like feeling that you are in the right place and you’re doing the right thing in life, and that’s a blessing I have every day I pass the door at Rothberg.”


    • Doctorate in media studies, Sorbonne Nouvelle University (2008)
    • Master’s degree in media studies, Sorbonne Nouvelle University (2005)
    • Bachelor’s degree in journalism, Sorbonne Nouvelle University (2003)

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    David Mendelsson

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    Prof. David Mendelsson is a senior lecturer at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS), teaching History of the Modern State of Israel and The Arab-Israeli Conflict: From Its Origins to the Present. He is also the director of the Year in Israel program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Prof. Mendelsson holds doctoral and master’s degrees from the Department of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University, and a bachelor’s degree in politics and modern history from Manchester University.

    From England to Israel

    Though he grew up in the UK, Prof. Mendelsson’s interest in Israeli politics and history began early in life. He joined the youth movement at age nine, and traveled to Israel for the first time at age 16. A few years later, as a student in the Institute from Youth Leaders from Abroad, he was introduced to some of the educators who would become his mentors at Hebrew University.

    After completing his undergraduate degree, Mendelsson returned to HebrewU – drawing in part on his own experience as his continued his studies. “I wrote my master’s thesis on the history of pioneering youth movements, and then, a few years later, I decided this wasn’t enough,” he says. He continued on to a doctorate, writing his dissertation on the history of Anglo-Jewish education from 1944 to 1988. “It was using the prism of education to understand the Jewish community … Of course, I’d lived through part of that story,” he says. “I went to Sunday school, and I went to day schools, but I was very conscious of the debate that was going on about expanding the number of Jewish day schools, and the story behind them.”

    History in Context

    Today, most of Mendelsson’s teaching is focused on the history of Israel and contemporary Israel. One particular area of interest is Mount Herzl – Israel’s national cemetery, which is named for Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism. Mendelsson takes all his classes on tours of the site.

    The trips, he says, are “not a pilgrimage visit, which people typically do when they go to the grave of Herzl. It’s much more an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, this is how Israel self-identifies using sacred space and sacred time.’” Mendelsson guides students down the mountain, stopping at the burial sites of key Zionist and Israeli leaders, including Herzl and prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Then, they visit the military cemetery.

    “Typically, when you go to military cemeteries, it’s all very uniform … But here, what’s happened over the years is a breakdown of uniformity,” he explains. “People bring in pictures, souvenirs … You realize that Israeli society is going through some type of change, from a very high degree of collectivism to an increasing degree of personal statements of individualism.”

    Even students who have visited before, Mendelsson says, often see the place in a new light. “They’ve talked about the individuals … But they’ve never really done what anthropologists might call the deconstruction of the site.”

    “The site becomes the text … And that’s always wonderful, you know? Rather than being in a classroom, you’re outside and you’re appreciating Israel,” he says. “And I think the students, they love it.”

    Exchange of Ideas

    Whether in or out of the classroom, Mendelsson says, the most rewarding part of teaching is sharing ideas with his students.

    “I really get a kick out of students being reflective about where they come from and what they see in Israel,” he says. “Very often they come to class and it’s clear they don’t quite understand how this place works. I feel as though I can give them tools to understand better, and it’s very exciting to see that.”

    Mendelsson says his students teach him as well. “One of the major things I learn is where they come from – not just in the geographic sense of the term, but in how they understand the world. What are the issues that concern them? They keep me abreast of some of the developments and experiences that young people have today.”

    International Community

    The exchange of ideas, Mendelsson says, is made richer by the diversity of the RIS student body. “I have students from all sorts of wonderful places around the world – America, Canada, Korea, Europe … It brings together people from all across a national divide, a geographic divide, a religious divide.”

    “I think it enriches the classroom … students are not only learning from the teacher, they’re learning from each other. That has to be one of the great things about the program.”

    Mendelsson says the RIS administration, too, is supportive of faculty and students alike: “They really care about our students … Some of them, this is perhaps their first time away from home, or for that matter in our part of the world. So to have a sense of caring and compassion, empathy, and support – that’s terrific.”


    • Ph.D., Department of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2003)
    • M.A., Department of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1987)
    • Bachelor’s degree in politic and modern history, Manchester University (1979)

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