100 Hebrew teachers for new immigrants file resignation letters in protest at wages

Resignations account for 20% of total number of tutors at state-provided language schools that are already suffering backlog due to lack of teaching staff

Teacher Hanna Rabkin and three new immigrants from Ukraine attend class at Renanim Shuvu school in Nof Hagalil, Israel, March 23, 2022. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)
Teacher Hanna Rabkin and three new immigrants from Ukraine attend class at Renanim Shuvu school in Nof Hagalil, Israel, March 23, 2022. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

100 Hebrew teachers at state-run language schools for new immigrants filed resignation letters on Sunday in protest at a lack of progress in negotiations for higher wages that have been going on for months.

The resignations will come into effect on September 1 with the start of the new school year.

Teachers at ulpans, the Hebrew term for specialty Hebrew-language schools, are primarily requesting salaries that are in line with regular school teachers, who have a powerful union and consequently receive substantially higher salaries.

An ongoing major shortage of instructors for ulpans has caused significant delays for thousands of new immigrants in learning the language. Yet the sector is struggling to find new teachers with activists blaming years of poor salaries and work conditions, leading many to leave for better-paying jobs as teachers in other schools.

The country currently only has around 500 ulpan Hebrew teachers and the resignations will have a considerable impact on a system that is already struggling to meet demand.

“I love the new immigrants and the country but I must provide for my family,” one Hebrew teacher, identified only by her first name Yafit, told the Kan public broadcaster.

The past year saw immigration to Israel, or aliyah, rise dramatically to the highest levels in over two decades, almost completely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and its subsequent crackdowns and drafts back at home, which prompted tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians to immigrate to Israel.

Israel scrambled to absorb all of these new arrivals, renting hotel rooms and working with schools to prepare for the influx of children who would need language help and social assistance.

One area that was found to be a major weak spot, however, was Hebrew-language instruction for adults. New immigrants faced major delays in beginning these Hebrew courses, with some waiting several months before they could begin learning the language in a classroom setting.

MK Oded Forer, chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, oversees a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Yafit claimed that the education and finance ministries are arguing over who should fund NIS 40 million ($12 million) needed to hire more teachers.

She said ulpan teachers’ wages have not been updated for 15 years and new tutors start on minimum wage.

“I am a teacher with the same training and education as all teachers, and anywhere else I could get much more,” Yafit explained.

Opposition Yisrael Beytanu MK Oded Forer, chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he has for months been warning the education and finance ministry that their “disregard will lead to the closing of ulpans.”

He noted that recent figures showed Israel is experiencing its largest wave of immigration in 20 years.

“It’s not too late yet,” Forer said. “I call on Bezalel Smotrich and Yoav Kish — stop the crisis in the Hebrew ulpans, equate the teachers’ conditions to the conditions in the entire education system,” he said referring to finance and education ministers respectively.

In January his Knesset committee met to debate the issue and lawmakers heard that new immigrants are sometimes waiting up to six months until they are admitted to an ulpan.

In an effort to relieve the backlog, Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer — in one of his first acts — allocated an additional NIS 20 million ($6 million) for vouchers for private Hebrew-language instruction, doubling the ministry’s budget for private lessons.

However, Forer at the time knocked Sofer’s voucher proposal as it puts the onus of responsibility on the new immigrants, rather than on the state. When a new immigrant studies at a state-run ulpan, their tuition is automatically paid to the school by the government. If they study at a private ulpan, however, they pay their own tuition and then request reimbursement from the government.

Yad L’Olim, a group that advocates for immigrants and which is also lobbying for the ulpan teachers, told lawmakers the teachers are demanding to be paid on the same level as other Education Ministry employees, to receive restitution for their years without pay raises, and to be considered full-time employees, instead of as the part-time workers they are designated today.

That was estimated to cost roughly NIS 40 million ($12 million).

In addition to being a source of immediate frustration, the long wait times could have significant negative impacts on immigrants’ ability to settle in Israel in the long-term; knowledge of Hebrew has been shown to be a key factor in successful long-term integration into Israeli society.

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