Its Hebrew all day, every day at new USF ulpan

The ulpan, Israel's mainstay of intensive Hebrew instruction, landed for the first time at a local Jesuit university this summer.

In classrooms at the University of San Francisco, students of varying levels spent five days a week, five hours a day poring over grammar and vocabulary. They chatted about their jobs and hobbies, wrote letters and sang songs in Hebrew, and played games aimed at heightening their comfort with the language.

Thursday of last week, the second to last day of the course, Simon didn't tell students to "put your hands on your head." Shimon said put your yadaim on your rosh. Now on your af (nose). And your pe (mouth). Judging by the ease with which students followed Shimon's commands, Hebrew terms had become nearly second nature over the course of the three-week program.

"They actually have learned much more than I thought they would," said Esti Skloot, who taught the intermediate class. "They were very motivated."

Different factors spurred the students on.

Devra Noily, 36, will attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College next year and wanted to improve her skills in preparation. Aviv Golani, 13, wants to be able to speak Hebrew with his Israeli father and other relatives.

Other than reciting prayers, David Fankushen, 61, has hardly used Hebrew since his yeshiva days in New York. A retired San Anselmo physician, he decided it was time to restore what he once knew. "It's amazing how things came back," he said.

During the ulpan, Fankushen and other students found Hebrew running through their thoughts beyond the classroom.

"Sometimes my mom talks to me in English and I find myself saying ken," Hebrew for "yes," said Noah Bluestone, who will start his junior year at San Rafael High School in the fall. Like Golani, Bluestone took the course so he can converse with his many Israeli relatives. The 16-year-old had previously taken private lessons from Skloot.

In all, about 21 students enrolled in the intensive summer program, which was split into beginning and intermediate sections and cost $950.

"We even got more than the number we were hoping for," said Andy Heinze, director of USF's Swig Judaic studies program. "It's clear to me there's a real demand for this."

Though Hebrew courses have been offered for years at local universities, synagogues and Lehrhaus Judaica, the USF ulpan is believed to be the only such immersion program of its kind in the Bay Area. It received funding from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Friend Family Foundation.

"I have very high hopes that it will just expand and expand and be able to serve more and more people as an established institution in the Bay Area," Heinze said.

Golani, who totes a green backpack with a Jewish star and the word "Israel" emblazoned on it, had learned some Hebrew during his years at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. The ulpan, he said, elevated his Hebrew to new heights.

"On a scale from one to 10, before I was about a one," he said. "Now I'm about a seven."

Noily, who has studied Hebrew at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, characterized her Hebrew at the end of the ulpan as "much, much, much better. I don't think I ever thought in Hebrew before."

But in addition to advancing students' language skills, the program offered another, unexpected benefit. "They're like a family," Skloot said of her students. "They love being together."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.