Falafel, bus tickets: New ulpan teaches practical language

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In fact, when Rena Racket, director of Beth Jacob's high school program, surveyed her 10th-grade class, she discovered one-third of them wanted to learn more Hebrew — especially in its modern form.

"The biblical Hebrew that these kids learn in preparation for their b'nai mitzvah has nothing to do with conversational Hebrew," Racket said. "The students I talked to wanted to learn practical language before their confirmation trips to Israel."

Responding to their appeal, Racket set up a high-school ulpan (intense Hebrew language class), the first in the Bay Area.

The ulpan, which meets Tuesday evenings from 7:15 to 9:15 beginning in February, is open to members and non-members alike.

The ulpan will not only provide students with language skills and a connection to Israel, Racket said, but it will keep teens engaged in synagogue life at a time when many opt out.

"It's a way of keeping my hands on them [after their b'nai mitzvah and] until they go to college," Racket said.

But this ulpan will not force students to sit in rows and conjugate verbs by rote. Ulpan teacher Erez Saldinger wants students to help direct the class.

"I want them to take pride and ownership in it. I don't want this to be repetition of the Sunday-school experience," Saldinger said.

Saldinger, a native Israeli and a teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, plans to use Berlitz language school methods such as props, pictures, games and skits. They will be a part of the students' "immersion in language," he said.

For example, Saldinger will choose an area of interest to teens — like eating out, shopping or dating — to engage them in conversations, introduce new vocabulary and review what they've already learned.

Learning a language by using it in conversations that are meaningful to students "brings the language to life," Saldinger said.

"By giving them the tools to be able to read the language that is written now and not just religious documents, I hope to increase their communications skills and love of Judaism."

In addition, Saldinger believes speaking the language will help students to forge a better connection to Israel.

"It's [Hebrew] a different language when you speak it, when you can read the newspaper in it. You connect with the country. You don't feel foreign in it. You feel a part of it," Saldinger said. "This is my goal, my aim."

Because the ulpan program is open to members and non-members in grades eight through 12, Saldinger expects a range of knowledge and language experience.

To accommodate all skill levels, Saldinger will divide students into smaller work and discussion groups that he will facilitate. He will introduce new material to the class as a whole.

At the end of the 10 weeks, students should be able to order a meal, ask for directions, buy a bus ticket and engage in simple conversation in Hebrew.

In addition, Racket hopes Saldinger's background will infuse the ulpan with an "authentic flavor," she said.

"We want the kids to experience the culture behind the language," Racket said.