Excitement ran through Johnny’s* body once he finally obtained his plane ticket to Tel Aviv. A former resident of a Latin American country whose name cannot be disclosed because of the sensitivity of the matter, Johnny wanted to escape the economic uncertainty plaguing the country and continue his career as a photographer in the Jewish state.
A mere two days before he was set to board his flight, a police officer – who saw Johnny proudly wearing a cap with a star of David which was given to him by a Jewish Agency representative – demanded he give him $400 and stole his cameras.
“You’re a millionaire Jew, you don’t need it,” the policeman sneered. He paid the officer, embarked on the plane and hasn’t looked back since.
“I left everything there. I left with my shirt on the back and my plane ticket,” he said.
The photographer is one of the many interesting faces at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem. The ulpan caters to olim (immigrants) who have already demonstrated their abilities abroad – in Johnny’s case, he studied photography at university and is fascinated by contentious borders all over the world. While here, he plans to photograph perhaps the most controversial border in existence – the one Israel shares with Gaza.
Tucked away in the capital’s East Talpiot neighborhood, the ulpan is a hotbed of creativity, knowledge and Zionist zeal.
And, given, the intimate quarters and intense five-month schedule where they learn intensive Hebrew, the students at the ulpan engage in a fast-paced collision course with Israeli society.
Ulpan Etzion is a stepping stone for dedicated to young adults aged 22 to 35 who have already obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in their country of origin.
The days go by fast at the ulpan, where students learn Hebrew in the mornings and then have the afternoons free to engage in coordinated talks, lectures and activities of their choice.
“We try to provide the olim with samples of Israeli culture and a social network so they are fully prepared to be productive members of Israeli society,” Orly Zuckerman, the Jewish Agency’s Director of Absorption Programs for Western Olim, explained, adding that the ulpan is the agency’s flagship program when it comes to absorbing young olim.
“These are young people who come with the goal to be part of the Jewish world and build their life in Israel. These are accomplished people who lived a good life back home, but decided to come here. They are all sharing the same destiny,” Ziv Avrahami, the ulpan’s director said of the 500 students that study there a year.
For Joel Collick, an oleh from London, observing Israel from the lens of a Diaspora Jew simply didn’t cut it. “I wanted to be part of the Jewish story,” Collick, who made aliyah in July, said of a decision that would change the rest of his life. “This is the most exciting chapter of that story and I want to experience it to the fullest.
“I really want to be part of building the state,” said Collick, who hopes to join the IDF once his stint at the ulpan comes to a close.
Since 1949, the ulpan has embraced many olim like Collick and Johnny, immigrants who came to Israel out of choice and necessity, respectively.
The formula for providing a comprehensive network has gained so much traction in recent years that five other branches of the ulpan are now available across the country – in Ramle, Haifa, Beersheba, Kibbutz Tzova and Ra’anana. This is part of the Jewish Agency’s efforts to provide a network of customized paths to choose from when olim decided how they want to integrate into Israeli society.
At the end of the five months, most students come away with much more than fluency in Hebrew. Often, they have made friends for life who go onto become future roommates, best men/maids of honor at weddings and even significant others.
“I have three weddings to go to this month from past alumni who met here,” Avrahami gushed. “It’s such an honor to know that they found love here.”
The sense of wanting to give back and contribute is also true for Ezra Rosenblum, who intends to work in providing care for the elderly after he completes ulpan.
Rosenblum is grateful for the ulpan’s ability to assist him in navigating the most maddening part of living in Israel – its bureaucracy. “Knowing how to deal with the banking system, finding a job, getting to know Jerusalem, these are all important aspects of life here that the ulpan helped me with,” he said.
While the minutiae are important, Avrahami stresses the need to look at the bigger picture and understand how important it for Israel to retain these remarkable olim.
“This is amazing potential we can’t squander. Five hundred outstanding olim who have so much to offer and can be the next leaders and decision makers of the country,” Avrahami said.
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency.
*Last name withheld for security reasons.