University of San Francisco (Photo/Flickr-Eric Chan CC BY 2.0)
University of San Francisco (Photo/Flickr-Eric Chan CC BY 2.0)

We can’t let S.F.’s only ulpan disappear

Sound the alarm bell. The University of San Francisco summer ulpan — at 20 years old, one of the longest running programs of its kind in the country — is in danger of being shut down.

So why does a Pakistani Muslim care about trying to save the Hebrew language immersion program?

As someone who was not raised Jewish but who has committed to building a Jewish family with a Jewish partner, I have attended the ulpan, where I put in five hours of Hebrew study a day for three weeks. Moreover, I believe that the ulpan serves as a window into Jewish life in the Bay Area.

The prospect of the program, which held its 2017 summer session from July 10 to 28, being shut down (at least in part) due to a lack of outside financial support is upsetting because of its ramifications for those seeking to enrich their Jewish literacy.

Obtaining even basic Hebrew proficiency at the ulpan has made me able to connect my emerging Jewish identity with practice — in shul, in planning travel to Israel, and in how I engage with members of Jewish communities both in Israel and in the United States.

Additionally, there’s something about the beauty of learning the Hebrew language — not needing to rely on transliteration in shul, learning how to be conversant in modern Hebrew, knowing what parts of prayers mean — that make me feel more connected to Judaism, in an incredibly profound and spiritual way.

On a practical level, I found myself thinking in Hebrew outside the classroom just two weeks into the ulpan session, or wanting to respond to English speakers in Hebrew.

Compared to, say, Los Angeles or New York, there are fewer resources in the Bay Area on how to live Jewishly.

There are certainly many synagogues here that welcome interfaith families, but there aren’t many resources that focus on learning Hebrew as a language. And while I don’t think knowing Hebrew is the be-all and end-all of Jewish literacy, it is an important component, especially for those who have a limited background in how to “do Jewish.”

As we all know, increasing numbers of Jews are marrying people of non-Jewish backgrounds. I’m not here to blow the intermarriage warning shofar. I just think it would be nice to have a resource like the ulpan that helps people feel more connected to Judaism.

I spoke to several people in my ulpan who were raised in a robust Jewish tradition and they, too, stressed the importance of the ulpan to feel more connected to their religious tradition, to Israel and to strengthening Jewish life in the Bay Area.

There are many ways to be Jewish, and some of them don’t involve Hebrew at all. But it seems to be a travesty that USF might drop the ulpan program.

If that happens, what are people who want to obtain Hebrew language skills, as a way to better connect to their Judaism, supposed to do? Where are they supposed to go? The Los Angeles Ulpan? The well-known ulpan at Middlebury College in Vermont?

The Israeli teachers at the ulpan are phenomenal, each bringing rigor, cumulative skill-building and, most importantly, fun to the program. Each and every one of them is indefatigable and so incredibly passionate about continuing to teach Hebrew. The program is open and welcoming to all, and attracts students from all walks of life. It reflects one of the best things a Jewish cultural institution can be — inclusive and diverse.

There’s also something to be said for the ulpan being affiliated with a university, which lends credibility.

If the ulpan continues to do its job of providing critical Hebrew language skills, can’t the Jewish community step up and provide support to the program when it’s in need?

If it were shut down, what would that say about how the Bay Area Jewish community values its smaller parts — parts that are perhaps under the radar, but are of no less value than any other part. Jewish cultural life in the Bay Area and its diversity depends upon all of us.

I plan to donate to USF to ensure the ulpan’s continuity for years to come. If you can donate any amount, I urge you to do so at USF’s donations page, make sure you use the blank space underneath the query “To what would you like to give” and earmark your donation for “Ulpan San Francisco, Swig Program in JSSJ.”

Maliha A. Khan
Maliha A. Khan

Maliha A. Khan is a strategy consultant living in San Francisco.