MKs demand solutions to Hebrew teacher shortage that is vexing new immigrants

Low pay blamed for months-long backlog for new arrivals seeking placement in language classes; fuming panel head knocks plan to offer vouchers for private lessons

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Knesset's Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee holds a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
The Knesset's Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee holds a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

A Knesset committee on Wednesday debated the causes and possible solutions for a major shortage of instructors for state-run Hebrew schools, or ulpans, which have caused significant delays for thousands of new immigrants in learning the language.

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.

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 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, which is normally offered through a state-run ulpan, the Hebrew term for specialty Hebrew-language schools. 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.

“In a normal year, the waiting time is a month or two. This year, it’s up to six months,” a representative from the Education Ministry said.

The reason for these delays was primarily a shortage of teachers in the state-run ulpans, which activists blame on years of poor salaries and work conditions, leading many to leave for better-paying jobs as teachers in other schools.

According to the Education Ministry, which oversees the ulpans, there are currently just over 525 teachers instructing immigrants in Hebrew, approximately 100 short of the optimal staffing level.

The State of Israel, which can launch satellites, can’t figure out how to solve the problem of backlogs for ulpans?

Knesset members from both the coalition and opposition called for a resolution to the problem at the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee meeting, which also included representatives from the various government offices involved in the ulpan system.

“No one wants to live in a country where they don’t understand the language. Language is the basis for a successful integration of immigrants. We must do everything to resolve the issue of ulpan teachers as quickly as possible,” said Likud MK Boaz Bismuth.

National Unity MK Ze’ev Elkin, himself an immigrant from Ukraine, stressed the damage that the delays were causing to new immigrants.

“A wait time of six months for a new immigrant to enter ulpan causes critical damage to the absorption process. The tool for treating this is improving the working conditions of ulpan teachers. The main reason for the backlog is a shortage of teachers, and so long as their conditions don’t improve, the situation will only get worse. This isn’t just to help the teachers, it’s to help the state,” Elkin said.

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 on Tuesday, doubling the ministry’s budget for private lessons.

Sofer, who said he inherited the problem, expressed hopes that the vouchers would “help thousands of new immigrants learn Hebrew and ease their absorption and integration into the Israeli job market.”

Committee head MK Oded Forer of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party fumed at the government’s failure to resolve the issue.

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)

“The State of Israel, which can launch satellites, can’t figure out how to solve the problem of backlogs for ulpans?” he asked rhetorically.

Forer gave the representatives of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, Education Ministry and Finance Ministry two weeks to come up with an “emergency plan” for ending the logjam.

“Dealing with the backlog is a ‘must,’ it’s not a ‘nice to have,'” he said.

Forer also 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.

“Immigrants do not necessarily know how to make full use of their rights. They shouldn’t be the ones negotiating. [The government] needs to be there dealing with the ulpans,” he said.

Forer called on the government to meet with the ulpan teachers and seriously consider their demands. He added that he would demand regular updates on the negotiations.

The ulpan teachers are primarily requesting salaries that are in line with regular school teachers, who have a powerful union and consequently receive substantially higher salaries.

Speaking to the committee, one ulpan teacher said her pay rate had not been updated in two decades. “For 20 years, I’ve earned NIS 7,000 ($2,070) per month,” Ziva Alias said.

Yad L’Olim, a group that advocates for immigrants and which is also lobbying for the ulpan teachers, said 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.

This is estimated to cost roughly NIS 40 million ($12 million).

“We are required to have bachelor’s degrees and teaching degrees, and yet the salaries that we receive are humiliating,” Suzy Atar, chairwoman of the public ulpan teachers association, told the committee.

“We know how to be flexible. In the past year, we increased the number of students we teach by 50 percent, and we expect our salaries to go up accordingly,” she said.

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