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Israeli immersion

A new abroad program offers a Hebrew-intensive semester

By Jessie Miller
On January 23, 2012

Study abroad options at Brandeis span the map from Amsterdam to Australia. We arrive in an unknown country and hope for the best. We occasionally mingle with the locals, testing our broken Chinese or Spanish in brief interactions. We take one or two classes in the country's language, but often find ourselves reverting back to the comfort of the English language. But as part of a new program this semester, Heather Stoloff '13 has been forced to leave her English behind for a semester solely of Hebrew in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

In an innovative approach to Hebrew language education, the University is now offering a Hebrew-Intensive study abroad program in conjunction with Middlebury College at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, located in Be'er Sheva.

Previously, the University offered a joint Hebrew summer program at Middlebury, but this new development is the result of many changes within the Hebrew department, including that students can no longer major in Hebrew. Despite these cutbacks, the department is encouraging students to continue studying the language both in and out of the classroom.

The new program is one way of representing the University's commitment to continuing a strong Hebrew department, according to Director of the Hebrew Language Program Prof. Vardit Ringvald (NEJS), one of the driving forces behind the creation of the program. Ringvald has been working closely with both Ben-Gurion and Middlebury College, located in Vermont, to ensure its success.

"We are training the teachers [at Ben-Gurion] to be able to help our students achieve their goals based on what we understand," Ringvald explained in an interview with the Justice.

Ringvald has also been involved in creating the curriculum that the students will study and wants to make sure "students maximize their stay in Israel vis-à-vis the language and the culture," she said.

While in Be'er Sheva, students will receive 16 credits by taking four classes: Modern Hebrew (10 hours per week), two electives on Israeli and Middle Eastern culture, religion or politics and a practicum that will help students with the full immersion experience of living and studying abroad. Along with their academic studies, the students will be able to travel to other parts of Israel and interact with people there.

"Brandeis really wanted to expand what they are doing in Israel and this was a great opportunity," explained Ringvald.

The city of Be'er Sheva is located in the heart of the desert, making it an interesting place for a university of such livelihood. According to Ringvald, the reasons for choosing this location include its similarity to an American campus and the fact that most of the Israeli students live on campus, versus other schools where more students commute.

Another key factor is "the openness of the teachers to accommodate our students and their commitment to our goals," Ringvald said.

"The students will have a complete sense of the life [of students in Israel] and will be able to interact with the community," Ringvald said.

"[Ben-Gurion University is] doing something a lot like our mission at Brandeis, which is social justice," Ringvald explained.

"[Students] will interact on a daily basis with Israelis ... and will be able to do a lot of projects associated with social justice, from working with Bedouins, children of immigrants and helping in different areas [of Be'er Sheva]," explains Ringvald. The students will also be able to use their language skills to "speak fluently ... with native speakers," she said .

In order to be eligible for the program, students must have at least an intermediate level of Hebrew, as all classes are taught in the language. In accordance with Middlebury policy, students also must sign a pledge to only speak the target language in order to benefit fully from living in Israel.

"In order to really study a language, you have to be immersed in it, ... [and students will] have a lot of opportunity to practice the language in the classroom and outside," Ringvald said.

Stoloff, who is currently enrolled in the program, says she became interested in the program because it "challenges students [to] speak Hebrew and gives them the opportunity to get away from the crutch of speaking English with other international students." Though it will be difficult, Stoloff agrees that banning English "is the only way to make strides toward fluency."

While abroad, students will be living with Israeli college students. "They are going to be able to integrate in the Israeli culture without being grouped or separated in the university just because they are in a different program," Ringvald explains.

They will also be able "to participate in many of our partner University's clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities alongside Israeli peers," according to the Brandeis website.

Ringvald said that the program has recently hired a new director, faculty member Tomer Levi (NEJS), who is in charge of supervising the students while they are there. Levi will maintain the "very strong connection to the methodology we use here at Middlebury and Brandeis," Ringvald said.

In the future, Ringvald expects the program to grow rapidly because of its innovative structure.

"Everything will be done in Hebrew so the outcomes are going to be very successful in their ability to use the language, ... and it's going to be the only program that offers this study," thereby attracting even more students eager to immerse themselves in the Hebrew language. 

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