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New Hebrew courses help Olim prepare for Aliyah

Moving to a new country has enough challenges without the language barrier. An intensive online Hebrew course gives Olim the tools they need to converse with confidence.

New Olim in the Nefesh B'Nefesh office (Credit: Yonit Schiller)
New Olim in the Nefesh B'Nefesh office (Credit: Yonit Schiller)

Making Aliyah is challenging. Not only do Olim deal with finding apartments, jobs, and social support networks, they do it all in a foreign language.

“Hebrew is critical for Olim,” says Avi Ziv, Director of NBNCONNECT , a program through Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) which aims to ease the process of integration for Olim by providing recruitment services, Hebrew classes, and general resources for finding a job . “Imagine attending a parents’ meeting at your child’s school or just trying to speak with the teacher. It’s a huge difficulty.”

While the Israeli government provides vouchers for Olim to attend ulpan to learn the language, these ulpans are often overcrowded or unable to accommodate all the students who want to attend. To provide Olim with extra support and the tools to learn Hebrew, NBNCONNECT recently launched new online Hebrew Courses that offer an intensive, yet flexible, learning environment for multiple different Hebrew levels.

“How have we not done this yet?” says Ziv, about launching the new courses. “Nefesh B’Nefesh works to break barriers for Aliyah, and the language barrier is critical. It’s so important to give Olim this tool to make their Aliyah easier.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Hebrew Courses launched in March with levels from 1A-6. Students take a placement test with translation and speaking components and are then placed into the correct level. The three-month courses are conducted via Zoom two to three times per week at different hours chosen to accommodate the specific students in each course.

“Our focus is to make sure everyone gets something practical when they finish,” says Rachel Tavdi, NBNCONNECT’s course coordinator, who invests significant time coordinating classes for students across different time zones and needs. “We want people to be able to go out and talk to their neighbors or travel around without needing to rely on tourist accommodations.”

Leon Kaplan recently completed the Level 1A course from his home in San Diego, California, while preparing to make Aliyah later this summer.

“I’m going to Israel, so I better start learning Hebrew,” Kaplan says. At the start of the course, Kaplan says his vocabulary was limited to words such as Shalom (hello/peace), Boker Tov (good morning), or even Ani Medaber Katzat Ivrit (I speak a little Hebrew).

“I knew how to read Hebrew from going to synagogue, but did I understand what I was reading? Not one word,” Kaplan says. “When I started the course, I thought, I barely can remember people’s names, how can I learn a new language? But I put in a lot of effort and I felt something change. I would wake up in the morning and think in Hebrew. I got the confidence to try and keep learning.”

Kaplan says the course was very interactive and students were pushed to speak and engage in Hebrew. “The teacher was fantastic,” he says. “She made us do things that at first felt uncomfortable, but she was patient and pushed us along.”

The eight students in Kaplan’s course had a WhatsApp group where they could converse, ask questions, and support each other. Kaplan notes that at the beginning, everyone wrote in English, but as the course progressed, much of the texting was in Hebrew.

“We learned 468 new words,” says Kaplan, who kept a record of each addition to his vocabulary. “The course focused on conversational Hebrew, which is a great way to learn because when I am in Israel, I’m going to be conversing with Israelis. No one is going to be explaining the letters or numbers to me, they will just speak.”

Shelly Galtman, the Level 2 course teacher, says the Nefesh B’Nefesh courses use a special method to help students improve their Hebrew. During her course, she would start by saying sentences in English and have the student quickly translate to Hebrew. Students had to say their translations out loud and she would correct them.

“These courses are more about speaking than listening,” says Galtman. “In the beginning, students were very unsure of themselves, but slowly they became more confident. By the end, students would come and say, ‘I just spoke to my doctor in Hebrew and understood!’ or ‘I ordered coffee in Hebrew!’”

Most of the students attending Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Hebrew courses are people preparing to make Aliyah from their home countries or recent Olim looking to improve their Hebrew after arriving in Israel. The courses are also open to Hebrew enthusiasts who are simply interested in the language, or to tourists who want to make traveling in Israel easier.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh students have a lot of motivation,” Galtman says. “Learning Hebrew is very important to them and they want to improve as fast as possible.”

The courses are taught in cooperation with other organizations, such as Ulpan La-Inyan, which has the infrastructure for online Hebrew courses. The courses are subsidized by Nefesh B’Nefesh which works in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and JNF-USA. Nefesh B’Nefesh is focused on keeping the courses small so students have the chance to participate and interact with their teacher and fellow classmates.

Tavdi, the Nefesh B’Nefesh course coordinator, notes that because many of the students are preparing for Aliyah, they have a lot in common and support each other during their Aliyah journeys. They consult with each other and some even become friends who will meet in person for the first time after arriving in Israel.

“The Nefesh B’Nefesh courses offer a safe environment to practice, make mistakes, and push students to continue learning,” Tavdi says. “Learning a language is overwhelming. We’re here to offer support.” Tavdi notes that because many of the students are preparing for Aliyah, they have a lot in common and support each other during their Aliyah journeys.

Stefanie Schur, who just finished the Level 1A course, says this support system was one of the top benefits of the course.

“The course format naturally led us to develop friendly relationships that extended beyond class time, which is so important to being comfortable in the learning environment,” says Schur, a New York native now living in Germany who plans on making Aliyah later this year. “I felt like I was learning things that I will use as soon as I arrive.”

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