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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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  • 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

    Amal Al Nagammy

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    Amal Al NagammyProf. Amal Al Nagammy is a lecturer of written and conversational Arabic at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS). She is also a respected international speaker and educator in Arab women’s rights and empowerment as a gendered approach to peacebuilding and conflict resolution, and is an active United Nations committee member for Women, Peace, and Security. A native speaker of both Arabic and Hebrew who is also fluent in English, Nagammy has degrees in both Education and Social Work.


    Nagammy is currently finishing up her Ph.D. in Social Work, researching the Influence of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on Palestinian Women in Key Public Positions in the Palestinian Authority, on Their Role, and on the Status of Women in Palestinian Society in the Past and in the Present and Its Implications on the Future , at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Nagammy hopes to help define the roles of Palestinian women in the conflict and increase women’s impact on conflict resolution. “I believe that when women are part of the decision-making in conflict resolution, the conflict can be solved in a different way. The perspectives of Palestinian women provide a different approach.”

    Nagammy notes that not enough research currently exists on this topic, and as a Palestinian who grew up speaking both Arabic and Hebrew in an uncommonly diverse Haifa neighborhood, she has the language and family background needed to gain the trust of the Palestinian women she is researching. “It is my responsibility to bring this topic out and make it more available to people – change people’s way of thinking about the conflict. Women can help.”


    This idea of changing how people think about conflict is central to Nagammy’s approach to language instruction: “I teach Arabic because I think language can be a bridge for culture and conflict resolution. You can bring a different perspective through the language – connect people. I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years.”

    Eye-Opening Experience

    She observed the power of language to effect change within her very first year of teaching. In 1999, as the first teacher of Arabic in a Jewish middle school in Haifa, she was faced with a sixth grader who called her a terrorist. She held an after-class meeting with the student’s parents, and during the meeting, she was surprised to receive an apology from the father, of Israeli-Russian background. He said, “I’m the one who is responsible. I told my son that all the Arabs are terrorists, but I did not realize you were also an Arab. Please forgive me.” By the end of the year, this student was the best in the class. Nagammy clarifies that “as a teacher of Arabic, I teach not just one generation. I give students the opportunity to decide on their own who the Arabs are as a people, and they will affect everyone around them.”

    Biggest Challenge

    Nagammy feels that the most challenging thing about teaching Arabic is not grammar and mechanics, but worldview. “I try to help students learn who the Arab people really are through the language, the beauty – to enjoy it while they learn, not to hold in their head the image from anti-Arab propaganda. I try to make it a bridge.” She sees Arabic language learning as a way to “connect people to people.” No matter whether she is teaching beginning Arabic students or students who already have a master’s degree in Arabic, she aims to open their way of thinking and communicating through insightful readings, discussions, and debates. She has taught students from all over the world in a whole host of disciplines, such as political science, sociology, gender studies, and more.

    Recent Activism & Volunteer Work


    • Ph.D. Candidate, Social Work, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2017)
    • Master’s Degree in Social Work, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2009)
    • Master’s Degree in Education Systems, The Academic College for Education in Israel (2005)
    • Bachelor’s Degree in Education, Arabic and Hebrew Languages, The Arab College of Education, Haifa (1999)

    Learn more about Arabic at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School

    Division of Hebrew Language Instruction

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    From Indigenous Language Revival to Collaboration with the WZO

    Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS) Division of Hebrew Language Instruction is engaged in a wide range of exciting teacher-training collaborations. From working with the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia to revive the Sami language to partnering with the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to instruct international Hebrew language teachers, RIS’s Hebrew Division is engaged in raising the bar for nonnative language instruction.

    Reviving the Sami Language in Norway

    The Sami are an indigenous people of northern Scandinavia living in Norway, Finland, and Russia. In the past, the governments of that region actively suppressed Sami culture, forbidding the Sami to use or teach their indigenous language. This policy has since changed, and now the Sami in Norway are working to revive their native language as a means of strengthening their identity and forging a deeper connection with their unique culture. During the initial stages of their research, representatives of the Sami received recommendations to use the ulpan method of Hebrew language instruction as a model. Israel’s process of transforming Hebrew from a language used only in prayers and holy books into a spoken language – and one of Israel’s national languages – is extremely relevant to the Sami. This is why the Sami contacted the experts in the ulpan method at the RIS Hebrew Division.

    A statement from Senior Teacher Tzooki Shai and Administrative Director Orit Toeg explains: “Our relationship with the Sami began three years ago, and it is continuing successfully to this day. We hold training courses for groups of Sami teachers at the beginner and advanced levels, both in Jerusalem and in Norway.” In addition, the division helps these teachers prepare study materials and build curricula. For example, the first Sami textbook is currently being written in collaboration with and under the guidance of the RIS Hebrew Division.

    “This has been an exciting project,” Shai and Toeg note. “The challenge is to impart second-language teaching strategy while not actually speaking the language that needs to be taught. We can do this by placing an emphasis on principles, demonstrations, and practical experiences.” Communication between instructors and students takes place in English.  “In light of the success of this project with the Sami,” say Shai and Toeg, “we hope to enter into similar collaborations in the future.”

    World Zionist Organization Teacher Training

    The RIS Hebrew Division is the premier institution in Israel for training instructors to teach Hebrew as a non-native language. “Textbooks written by the RIS Hebrew Division are used by many teachers in ulpan programs and universities worldwide,” Shai and Toeg say. This is why the World Zionist Organization contacted the division last year with a request to train non-native Hebrew speakers from abroad in the Teacher Emissary Program, as instructors of Hebrew as a second language.

    This cooperation helps meet the growing need to train Hebrew teachers in other countries. “We hope to continue this work and thereby help raise the standards of Hebrew teaching abroad to meet the standards in effect at Hebrew University, and in this way expand the professional relationships between the RIS Hebrew Division and Hebrew teachers and educational institutions in the Diaspora,” Shai and Toeg emphasize. A typical student in this program is a non-native (but advanced) Hebrew speaker with an academic background, teaching experience, and strong ties to Israel, its culture, and its language.

    Part one of the training course was held in Paris, while part two took place at RIS in Jerusalem. “The course was a great success,” Shai and Toeg note. “It was attended by teachers from France, Russia, Ukraine, and South America.” Additional courses will be held later this year as well as next year, and remote learning options are available to individual teachers in England and Argentina. Learn more about the RIS Hebrew Division.

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