“Mi Col Ha-Olam”: A Month in Ulpan

Serena Runyan

It’s become exceptionally beautiful and warm in Jerusalem the past few days, so as the weather changes and the academic semester begin, its become time to reflect on my month in Ulpan and shift to a new aspect of my time here.

Ulpan is a rather intensive program in Israel to teach people Hebrew, and until last week it was all I did with my days from 9-14. Although I was taking Ulpan through Rothberg, it was separate from the regular academic semester, and many people were there for only the month to learn Hebrew. This produced a class of people from all backgrounds and all ages: a Korean pastor, a Brazilian who lives in Australia, a Spanish wife of a UN worker, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, and linguists from Togo. In addition to the equally diverse set of Rothberg students in our class, we could safely say our class was “Mi col ha-olam”- from every place in the world.

This diversity is consistent throughout Rothberg and throughout Jerusalem, and has been one of the most rewarding and engaging parts of being here. Every “where are you from?” is actually interesting; every communication is a lesson in the culture of language and the antics of idioms. Every discovery of dissonant cultural norms is a new lens on your own home.

But beyond our diversity, our Ulpan class really couldn’t claim much to being different. We laughed at the same jokes, made the same Hebrew mistakes, and all enjoyed describing (in Hebrew) what food we “ohev”- love. Perhaps more striking than our diversity was our lack of diversity.

By the end of our month together, we had become a group of friends. I think that was the first time I had ever sat with adults twice my age as friends and as peers, eating lunch and talking about our poor performance on the last quiz, or standing in line for a cappuccino every day together “for the last time”. It was a demonstration in how easily people can connect- in how one commonality is enough to produce camaraderie.

Some of my favorite moments were when our broken communication fell onto our common knowledge of Hebrew, or when it took a triangle of Hebrew, Spanish and English to explain new vocabulary.

I think I’ve learned as much from talking with Rothberg’s amazingly diverse student body as I have in class. Things that I never thought to learn about- the relatively small size of Switzerland’s cities, the fact that Australia subsidizes going to university- have demonstrated to me how little I know. All of these things are challenges to our perceptions of normality, and are thus all incredibly important.┬áThis is the beautiful thing about Rothberg, and about Jerusalem. This city’s diversity rivals any place in the world. But as the semester starts and we all split into different classes, we can’t help but see each other and exchange a “…but I miss our class”.