At this time last year, the summer ulpan program at the University of San Francisco — one of the longest running programs of its kind in the country — was in danger of being shut down. This year, it was thriving, with enrollment more than doubling compared to 2017.
What has changed? The teachers are just as committed, energetic and indefatigable as ever. The students, who come from all walks of life, continue to be just as enthusiastic about learning Hebrew. But there were 49 students enrolled in the program this summer, compared to 20 in 2017.
Once word got around that the ulpan may be on the chopping block, community members rallied. A generous donation by Anne Germanacos, a member of the San Francisco Jewish community, ensured the ulpan’s sustainability.
Potential students who would not have otherwise been able to attend the program were given substantial financial aid. In addition, the teachers and administration capably marketed the program. As a result, the ulpan had its highest enrollment numbers in many years, and once the program began, the quality and strength of the teaching spoke for itself.
This year was my second summer in the ulpan. In 2017, I started in kitah alef, where I learned the fundamental basics of Hebrew. When returning for kitah bet (the second level) this summer, I was slightly apprehensive about not having spoken or practiced much Hebrew for a full year. But therein lies the beauty of the ulpan and what sets it apart from other Hebrew language offerings in the Bay Area.
The immersive nature of the ulpan (we studied five hours of Hebrew a day for three weeks) is simply the best way to learn. It invites you to step directly into the language and build knowledge cumulatively as opposed to observing it from afar for an hour a week.
The rigor and intensity of the program is unparalleled. By the end of my first day in kitah bet, everything I had learned the previous summer came flooding back, which speaks to the quality of the foundational Hebrew I had learned in kitah alef.
Kitah bet was exciting — the learning of every day (and perhaps even every hour) built upon that of the previous day. Everything was carefully structured while also being immensely fun. The Israeli teachers are phenomenal, bringing decades of experience and engaging with their students in a way that makes them truly love Hebrew.
The diversity of the ulpan also adds to its strength. It attracts students from many walks of life — children, high schoolers, people looking to make aliyah, working professionals and retirees, among others. It is inclusive and friendly, and it is not uncommon for people to build lasting friendships during the program.
The shared love of learning Hebrew brings the group together. Increased Hebrew literacy through the ulpan enriches Jewish life in the Bay Area.
The class falls under the umbrella of USF’s Jewish Studies and Social Justice program (the only program of its kind in the country that officially links Jewish studies to social justice). Given the success of this summer’s ulpan, the administration is considering the possibility of a winter ulpan, as well, to allow more students to learn Hebrew.
Personally, I have found learning Hebrew to be like opening a set of doors to a whole new form of literacy. It can help in shul, in travel to Israel, in feeling connected to the community or just for the sheer joy of learning a new language. I will be returning to the ulpan next summer (and in the winter if it’s offered), hopefully in kitah gimel!