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Making Connections through the Ulpan

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Here I am on this lovely morning watching the sunrise on Yom Kippur – 25 hours of atonement. For me, this is a time of reflection and gratitude.

Making Connections through the <em>Ulpan</em>

At this point in the year, I have completed the Summer Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language program, at the Aleph or beginners level and will begin the fall semester after Sukkot.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to come to Israel a week early to explore Jerusalem, meet new people, eat great food, and have fun adventures. I learned about Shabbat and Jerusalem’s tradition of honoring Shabbat weekly. Now, having completed the Summer Ulpan, I have had many basic conversations in Hebrew with taxi and bus drivers as well as other Israelis, allowing me to walk through the city with more confidence and grounding.

When I arrived on campus, the difficulty and duration of the ulpan was a shock for me, and I did not think I would be able to continue. But I overcame that first day and ended the ulpan being able to understand and speak Hebrew out in the real world. As an English speaker with a little bit of French under my belt, I was able to push through and, in fact, tap into my French again, which I had not used since high school.

Through the ulpan, I made connections with people I can now call friends and had amazing teachers who were able to get us through more than half the textbook in just under a month. At the same time, I was able to absorb and practice the information learned in class while in the city. Even as this was difficult for me in the beginning, as I was retraining my brain, I came out with an expanded mind.

With this awakening of the language part of my brain, I have also found enjoyment in expanding my knowledge through some interesting books on campus in English, French, and Hebrew.

So far, my experience in Israel has been truly unique and special. I have appreciated all of the friendships and memories I’ve created.

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  • Who Are We Without Language? (Hebrew, Especially)

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    From the moment we are born, we slowly learn to communicate. At first, we use facial expressions and our body to “speak.” Very soon, however, we start communicating using language. Or maybe, as in my case, two languages. Wherever we are, we grow up communicating with people. What if we did not have language? Who are we without it? And, important if you study in Israel (at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School), doesn’t it help to make a real effort to learn Hebrew for our studies and understanding the world we live in?

    I grew up in the province of Fryslân (Frisian for the Dutch province Friesland) in the Netherlands – or Holland like many people in Israel call it. As for every child, the world was a wonderland. Step by step, word by word, I was becoming familiar with the place where I was born. I learned to identify things in nature, animals, and other humans… to say loft (air), frysk hynder (Frisian horse), and pake and beppe (grandfather and grandmother).

    Who Are We Without Language? (Hebrew, Especially)

    As all of us, I learned to speak, write, and read about this world – in Frisian at home, in Dutch at school. Soon the world was no wonderland anymore. It became a place that I “know.” Or, at least, I thought so. Our thinking is in words, but is the world really what we think? Can language describe reality? Who am I if I did not speak Frisian, Dutch, or a language at all? Who Are We Without Language? (Hebrew, Especially)

    In one of our Hebrew classes we read a text about Alice in Wonderland – in Hebrew: אליס בארץ הפלאות (don’t forget: you read Hebrew from right to left. Here, phonetically, it says: Alis, ba’erets haplaut). It’s a book that opens up a new world: לא סטנדרטי; עולם חדש (olam chadash; lo standarti). This was one of my favorite classes; it enabled me to learn new words in Hebrew, and also reminded me “to wonder” (לִתְהוֹת: lithot) and to “realize” something (משהו: mashehu) important:

    Language itself opens a new world to us. It brings us back to wonderland. Even though we might be familiar with things in the world, we don’t have the ability to share it with those who don’t speak our language. So, what do we do? We try to find the words and explain what we want to say. Like our teachers try to help us, not just to use the language, but to understand the meaning of it. It often happens in class when they try to explain, and someone says: “Is it…?” And they say: “Not quite…but close.” Language, as I realised, shows us several things. First of all, it shows that we want to understand the world we are born into. Second, it tells us that we want to connect with one another. We share this world and, just like Alice, we need to ask the right questions if we want to understand it.

    Who Are We Without Language? (Hebrew, Especially)

    Learning Hebrew is especially relevant to this quest. Why? The Jews have long been known as “People of the Book.” The Hebrew Bible and the Siddur are full of examples illustrating the importance of language. For example, Jewish philosophers/sages have asked many times, what is meant by עבודה שבלב (avodah shebalev) “the service of the heart,” a command given in the Torah. The answer typically given is “prayer” – in one’s heart and with one’s heart. And prayer is done through words.

    Another example from the Hebrew language, which at the same time shows its connection with Judaism, includes the term לִזכּוֹר (lizkor: to remember), that has connections to the Hebrew words for light and darkness at the same time. Or what to think of the fact that there are seven days, of which the first six are numbered and named separately beginning with the word יום (yom) day, and then the seventh day is just called שַׁבָּת (Shabbat). Orthodox Jews don’t use יום (yom: day) in combination with Shabbat, showing it is very unlike the other days, if a “day” at all, because it is beyond time. We can see now that learning Hebrew does not only open the world of today’s Israel, it also opens a religious/spiritual conversation in these regions that has been going on for centuries – within Judaism and between different traditions. It is not without reason that in the Qur’an we can find the term “people of the Book” more than 30 times – referring to Judaism, yet also through the centuries to Christians, Sabians, Hundus, Zoroastrians, and even Buddhists. Not surprisingly, the human has often been defined as a being that is able to use language, a definition that has been given by not just Rabbis, but also by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

    The language I grew up with, Frisian (Frysk), goes back to Greek and Roman times. There are many words that are not only difficult to translate into another language, but also have different layers of meaning. For example: Ik bin it paad bjuster. In English it would be something like “I am lost.” But there is much more to it; there is a reference to “path” (paad) that has become “dark” or “vague” (bjuster). In a spiritual/religious sense we can see that it is much more than being lost. No doubt the difficulty of translation and these layers of meaning can be found in every language. Which is exactly why the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor states that with losing languages, we not only lose a connection with God (or: Allah, Elohim, Nature, etc.), but also with meaning.

    At the same time, it is good to remember that language itself might not be describing reality, as we learn from a wonderful part in the סֵפֶר (sefer: book) about Alice:

    ‘When I use the words,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

    So, we must not forget that we need to keep asking questions, especially about what we mean to say and the world we are referring to. But in essence, language ties us all together in how we learn about the world. And people who share the same language are connected through many generations. It makes us able to remember the world of the past so that we can learn from it. Yet, it also ties different groups together – if we make an effort to learn each other’s language instead of all speaking one and the same.

    Learning a language is, then, the way to understand ourselves, to understand others, and perhaps, is also the way to a (more) peaceful world with meaning (with different layers). Can this happen? Well, we find the answer in Lewis Carroll’s excellent (מְצוּיָן: metsuyan) book: ‘This is impossible,’ says Alice, at a certain point. To which the Mad Hatter replies, ‘Only if you believe it is.’

    A City with Many Peoples

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    Being a farm boy from a small Midwestern town, I had no idea what to expect moving to Jerusalem. I could think of so many different reasons that I could end up hating it. Yet, to my surprise, none of them came to fruition.

    Instead, I have fallen completely in love with the city, its culture, the community, and the food. In fact, I think the only thing I do not like is the heat, but in the broad scheme of things that is not really so bad.

    There are so many different incentives for me to love this city that it would be silly to even try to list them all. However, there is one that I want to talk about here. Jerusalem is a city of some 850,000 people, and amongst the crowds you can find almost any culture you can imagine. Some days I make a game out of how many different languages I can hear walking down Yafo Street or through the Old City.

    A City with Many Peoples

    Shuk Mahane Yehuda

    Of course, there are the ever-present ones, Hebrew, Arabic, and English, but it’s also common to hear German, Spanish, Russian, and even on occasion Mandarin. The Israeli culture itself is a beautiful thing, full of rich history, delicious foods, and incredible music. However, what makes Israel all the more amazing are the countless smaller cultural groups within it.

    It is incredibly important, and fun, to make friends with locals. Yet, one of the best parts about Israel is that even while you are becoming a part of the community, you are also able to build friendships with people from all around the world. I came to Israel hoping that I would build relationships with Israelis, and I have, but at the same time, I have made friends with Africans, Europeans, Russians, Asians, South Americans, and even a Canadian or two.

    I am still waiting to see what my first full semester brings me, but after nearly three months in Jerusalem, one thing is for sure. Friendships are not something that I will be lacking!

    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)

    Learn more about studying Hebrew at RIS

    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)

    Learn more about studying languages at RIS

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