Anne Germanacos studied Hebrew at the University of San Francisco’s summer ulpan in 2007 and 2008 as she prepared for her first trip to Israel.
A decade later, the San Francisco writer and philanthropist is providing the financial support that is reviving the program and leading its director to dream of expanding it beyond a three-week summer session.
The program, which was on the brink of extinction when it attracted just 18 students in 2016 and 20 students last summer, just completed its 2018 run with 49 students and four classes. About half of those students attended thanks to partial scholarships from Germanacos.
“For the last few years, we’ve been on the verge of having to cancel the program, and this more than doubling means we can go strong and really build on this and build a high-level program,” said Oren Kroll-Zeldin, assistant director of USF’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and director of the ulpan.
Kroll-Zeldin said the financial support from Germanacos “was instrumental — without that we would not have had anywhere close to the number of students we registered.”
Germanacos learned to read Hebrew in Sunday school as a youth, but realized as she prepared for her first visit to Israel in November 2008 that she wanted to be able to communicate more easily there. So she spent two summers at the ulpan, which has been operating every year since 1998 at USF. “Ulpan” is a Hebrew word that literally means instruction or studio, but commonly refers to a style of intensive learning of Hebrew in which students and teachers speak exclusively in the language.
Ruth Rosenwald, who has been teaching at the USF ulpan since 2000, remembers Germanacos as an exceptional student.
“Anne is a very special person,” said Rosenwald, who also is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. “I remember her being very motivated at that time and very dedicated, and I love teaching people who are motivated. I remember her wanting to learn.”
Germanacos heard about the ulpan’s financial struggles last summer and reached out to administrators, saying she wanted to help by providing $20,000 to fund scholarships.
“It was very important to me, and it seemed to me kind of a no-brainer to get this up and running again,” she told J. “We had a couple of meetings. I said I didn’t want to see this go away.”
Her funding ensured that the program would not only survive, but thrive this summer. The ulpan was able to offer four classes — ranging from kita alef for beginners to kita dalet for those able to engage in serious conversations — and attracted students ranging from pre-teens to seniors.
Germanacos, 60, also is president and founder of the Germanacos Foundation, which supports educational and other programs in the Bay Area and Israel. Starting this school year, the foundation will financially support the teaching of conversational Arabic at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.
Germanacos visited the ulpan’s classrooms in late July, just before the students completed their intensive three weeks of five-hour days, and asked students in each group why they were there.
“In the first class, alef, most of them answered me in English,” she said. “But in the next three classes, they answered me in Hebrew.”
Kroll-Zeldin said he expects the support from Germanacos to continue beyond this summer, including similar funding for scholarships next year. That has allowed him to begin discussions with other faculty members about holding a winter ulpan and perhaps year-round programming, ideas that he hopes to bring to USF administrators in the coming months.
“She’s committed to supporting the program and helping us grow. After that we’ll see where we are, how sustainable it is. And we’ll continue to look for other funders,” Kroll-Zeldin said. “It’s looking great for the future. We’re not going anywhere. Our hope and plan is to build off of this and expand the program to create one of the most rigorous Hebrew-language immersion programs in the country.”
Rosenwald, who also tutored Germanacos privately in Hebrew after the ulpan, said it’s remarkable that a former student can now be supporting the program. Thanks to the scholarships, Rosenwald said, she’s already looking for more teachers for next summer in hopes of providing up to six different levels of instruction.
“I am amazed that she had such good memories from the ulpan when she took it,” Rosenwald said. “She’s such an amazing person. She has such a big heart and she wanted other people to have these positive experiences.”