For the past two decades, students ranging from a 10-year-old child to a Palestinian graduate student to a rabbi have spent part of their summer learning Hebrew at the University of San Francisco’s ulpan.
But the director fears this might be the last summer for the program because of declining enrollment and a lack of financial support from outside sources.
Aaron Hahn Tapper, founding director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at USF, said the ulpan that once had 50-60 students each summer had an enrollment of just 18 last year. He said he has asked the Israeli Consulate and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for financial help but received none. That leads him to believe USF, which Hahn Tapper said was ready to “pull the plug” two years ago before he took over the program, will discontinue the ulpan if it fails to boost attendance. Hahn Tapper said only 14 students were enrolled so far for this summer’s ulpan, an intensive language program created in Israel a year after its founding.
“The [school administrators] said we’ll see how it goes for a few years, we’ll see numbers, we’ll look at revenue and then we’ll reassess,” Hahn Tapper said. “I know the numbers. I know the expenses. I see the writing on the wall.”
Marcelo Camperi, dean of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences, did not directly address a question about the school’s commitment to the program, saying, “We support ulpan and hope that we see community interest and participation in the program continue.”
Esti Skloot, a native Israeli who ran the ulpan from its founding in 1998 until the end of 2015 and continues to teach there, said it’s important to have such a program in San Francisco. The Los Angeles ulpan, for example, offers multiple summer sessions in the Pico-Robertson area of West L.A.
“The alternative would be traveling to the East Coast or to Israel, which is much more expensive,” Skloot said.
The USF ulpan is a three- week course modeled on similar Hebrew immersion programs in Israel. It is set for July 10-28 this year. Tuition ranges from $1,500 for early birds who signed up by April 1 to $2,000 for those who enroll after July 1, and Hahn Tapper said tuition has been the program’s only source of income.
It’s one of the lifelines to Jewish literacy, it’s a way for Jews and others to be able to open the Jewish library, and that’s one of the keys to our survival and our flourishing.
Talya Glazer, the daughter of Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, attended the ulpan last summer as a 10-year-old and then used her Hebrew skills on a synagogue trip to Israel in December.
“It was a phenomenal experience for her,” Talya’s dad said. “I think it’s very important that it continues. It’s one of the lifelines to Jewish literacy, it’s a way for Jews and others to be able to open the Jewish library, and that’s one of the keys to our survival and our flourishing.”
Hahn Tapper, who said participants are often retirees but have included a Palestinian graduate student from NYU and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, said it would be very difficult to hold the ulpan somewhere else because it would be prohibitively expensive to match the classrooms and resources that USF provides.
“We’ve never gotten a cent from anybody. I’ve met with people from the Federation over the years, I’ve met with people from the Israeli Consulate. We’ve gotten zero dollars from those places,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me why there wouldn’t be regular, habitual support for a Hebrew program to thrive.”
The consulate and the Federation both told J. they would be happy to work with Hahn Tapper to help the ulpan survive.
In an email statement, a consulate representative said, “The USF ulpan program did reach out to us and our director of academic affairs is working hard to introduce Aaron to those who we think might be able to help. Unfortunately the Consulate does not have the capacity at this time to support such a program but of course we are eager to help them find the funding.”
Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesman for the Federation, said in an emailed statement: “Unfortunately, we have no record of a funding request for the ulpan program, but we look forward to connecting with Prof. Hahn Tapper to see what occurred and to learn more about the program.”
Rabbi Glazer said the ulpan is important for the entire Bay Area Jewish community. “This is the kind of thing we should consider on a communal basis,” he said. “It’s a valuable asset for the community. It’s way of creating Jewish engagement, by creating literate Jews.”