Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Ph.D.
Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost
In the new book Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World, Jeremy Benstein characterizes Hebrew as “a unique portal to and fruitful component of contemporary Jewish identity and culture.” He argues that “engagement with Hebrew enriches Jewishness in critical ways—culturally, religiously, ethnically, and more.”
This summer, eighteen HUC-JIR alumni spent a week on the Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem experiencing firsthand how enriching this type of engagement with Hebrew can be.
The Ivrit B’yachad: HUC-JIR Jerusalem Ulpan for Alumni offered a five-day immersive Hebrew program focused on Hebrew conversation for Reform religious leaders. The ulpan brought together graduates from our rabbinical, cantorial, education, and Jewish nonprofit management programs, from classes ranging from 1978 to 2018. The students were eager to improve their modern Hebrew skills, connect with colleagues, and take advantage of the unique opportunities for personal and profesional growth available on the Taube Family Campus.
Each morning, the ulpan started with t’filah led by different Israeli rabbinical students, followed by Hebrew classes taught by Rivki Rosner, Yossi Leshem, and Sharon Bar-Shaul. Students then took their Hebrew learning outside of the classroom with lunchtime activities throughout Jerusalem, including a picnic and walking tour of the neighborhood near Machane Yehuda, lunch at HaMiffal (“The Factory”), an abandoned building turned into a cafe and workshop for local artists near school, meals around town with the Jerusalem staff, and a delicious cooking lesson with a local chef.
Afternoon study sessions provided a chance to study classical Jewish texts and contemporary Israel with Jerusalem faculty members Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., Dr. Ruhama Weiss, and Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste. Cultural activities included a history lesson taught through Israeli dance, an evening with an improvisational theater group called Playback, and a lesson on niggunim with Israeli singer Odeleya Berlin.
A key component of the ulpan was that all these activities were conducted in Hebrew. Participants came with varying Hebrew levels, and everyone made a concerted effort to speak Hebrew as much as possible in and outside of the classroom. Cantor Gail Hirschenfang appreciated how the ulpan renewed and expanded her Hebrew skill level. She observed: “The ulpan was extremely well programmed with outstanding teachers and lots of creative activities and opportunities for experiential learning.” Rabbi Steve Goodman captured the spirit of the program when he wrote: “Ivrit B’yachad far exceeded my expectations. It helped me recover the confidence to speak Hebrew to Israelis, expanded my Hebrew vocabulary, and stimulated my desire to deepen my study of Hebrew grammar and modern Hebrew slang. On top of all that, it was great, great fun!”
Plans are already in the works for next summer’s alumni ulpan, which will be held the week of June 29, 2020.