Ulpan Etzion is a microcosm within a microcosm, a bizarre cross-section of the planet that could only exist in Israel. Famously billed as “Israel’s first ulpan,” the program has been around since 1949 and has since welcomed “thousands of new immigrants,” according to the Jewish Agency’s website. It serves both as a Hebrew language institute (ulpan) and as a home for the first five months of an immigrant’s new life in Israel.

But what makes the program truly unique is the people that it attracts.

Ulpan Etzion on Tu B’Shvat

During my time at the ulpan, in the Spring of 2011, there were at least 20 countries represented out of the 200+ students that lived there, and because the program only accepts college-educated young adults between the ages of 21 to 35, the ulpan took on the atmosphere of a hyper-concentrated college campus, from the generic cafeteria-style food to the rowdiness that pervaded much of life there. Every day of the week, but especially on Thursday nights, undulating groups of varying sizes and character would venture into town, abandoning government money to Jerusalem’s lively night life, or stay on campus to talk late into the night about politics or our own motivations for making aliyah to Israel. These conversations were often profound and always engrossing, dealing not with the intangible stuff small talk is normally made of, but with the real implications of our new lives. 

It soon became clear that for the new immigrant, an identity is not complete without a convincing reason for moving to the country, so much so that the question “Why did you make aliyah?” was the Ulpan Etzion version of the newly imprisoned inmate’s “What are you in for?” and I found peoples’ answers to be fascinating. While earlier waves of immigrants had come to Israel seeking to escape persecution or find opportunity, this new kind of immigrant voluntarily leaves behind comfortable and secure lives to pursue an uncertain and difficult one.

And Ulpan Etzion was a perfect introduction into this new, more “difficult” lifestyle. Stepping onto the campus, located in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood, it’s easy to be underwhelmed. The buildings are utilitarian and sterile and the apartments are spartan, with most layouts housing four students in two-bedroom flats. But to its credit, there was a modest workout room, a humble synagogue (unstaffed by any rabbi — even for sabbath services) and a cafe, though the cafe’s hours were constantly in flux. 

But to focus on the facilities was to miss the point of Israel, we knew. It was no secret to any of us that Israel was going to be a comfort shock to our Western sensibilities, and there was a certain fittingness to the ulpan’s stark accommodations, as if to say “Get used to it.” Besides, Israel’s quality of life doesn’t hinge on material matters, but more personal ones such as spirituality, Zionism, community or belonging.

Even so, that didn’t stop people from complaining. Very early on, a love-hate relationship developed between many of the students and the ulpan. It was both our gated community and our prison, simultaneously shielding us from the difficult realities of life in Israel, but also insulating us from our new life’s richest pleasures — setting up an apartment, going to university, serving in the army, finding a job.

Though some might find it bizarre that I haven’t even mentioned the quality of the Hebrew classes, there’s a reason for that — out of all of the experiences I took away from Ulpan Etzion, the actual ulpan was the least memorable. That’s not to say that the education was bad — the teachers were, for the most part, quite good and friendly — just that it was a side note in the larger scheme of those first five months.

And the Hebrew I learned turned out to be far less important than the other item I took away from the experience — a lasting social network. The effectiveness of the ulpan in establishing a social network was remarkable. To this day, over two years after moving here, my closest friends are those who I met in ulpan. Even my military service, while great for filling out one’s network with native Israelis, paled in comparison against the close-quarters relation building that Ulpan Etzion provided.

This was most evidenced by the surprising number of lasting couples that formed in the ulpan, many of whom have gone on to marry. Though I had been informed of the ulpan’s reputation as a great Jewish singles mixer, it’s hard to appreciate that truth until you’ve lived it. In my experience, there is something inherently soul-searching about moving to Israel as it’s never easy to pick up and leave behind friends and family, so by the time new immigrants arrive in Israel, they are desperately trying to fill that vacuum.

Thus, people are more open to meeting new friends, and even life partners.

In New York, there was always a tension inherent in the Jewish dating scene, as if you weren’t just dating the person across from you, but all of their friends and family as well. You’re being groomed for entry into their private life, and always scraping at the door, bidding for time against their closest pals.

For the new immigrant, this problem is nullified. We are all starting over, standing naked without the false armor of our past social circles. But this also means we get to rebuild those circles, choosing our friends and partners, and even our new selves, without outside influence. The result was relationship meritocracy, where we could finally be judged for who we are, rather than where we come from.

I’m often asked by people considering aliyah if I would recommend Ulpan Etzion, and for all of the hemming and hawing I inevitably fall down on the side of “Yes,” mostly for the social benefits I just mentioned. It’s a high-intensity experiment in world building, and as a subject of that experiment, I can say the results were a success. After all, next week I celebrate my first year anniversary of being married to an amazing woman from France — who I met in Ulpan Etzion.

 

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