In 2008, Arutz Sheva published an article about the Jewish Agency's flagship ulpan, Ulpan Etzion, then located in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. At the time, the administration of Ulpan Etzion refused entry to rabbis and Jewish religious educators, even though the students requested their presence on campus.
Soon afterward, the ulpan moved to into Beit Canada, located in Armon Hanetziv, and took on new management. For a time, rabbis were allowed on campus and even encouraged to enter and mingle with the new olim; however, students say the policy and attitude toward rabbis and Jewish education has reverted to what it was before 2009, and that the administration of Beit Canada once more banned all rabbis from the Ulpan.
Responding to questions from former students, the Ulpan administration claimed that it is undergoing a "rethinking" and "re-assessment" of its policy regarding rabbis in the institution.
Ulpan Etzion is the flagship institute of the Jewish Agency, where a select group of two hundred or more 22- to 36-year-old new olim with academic backgrounds are chosen to take part in an intensive ulpan experience, to learn Hebrew.
But UIpan Etzion represents much more than learning a new language; it is a new start and a new acculturation for the immigrants, during which they get to know each other and also the land of Israel itself. Part of that new experience, for many of them, means getting acquainted with not only Israel, but also Judaism. Moreover, a significant and growing percentage of the student body is made up of religious-Zionist olim.
However, despite the demand, the current administration of Beit Canada seems reluctant to allow rabbis onto the campus.
In once case, a group of new French olim brought their own rabbi onto the campus to accompany them during their initial Shabbat meal in the ulpan, and were chastised by the administration for doing so without their express permission. Students say a second French rabbi came on campus and taught a class that was apparently not in accordance with the views of the administration (although the rabbi denies any such thing), and has since then left his teaching post at the ulpan.
However, the "final straw" reportedly occurred when the administration discovered that several students were bringing rabbis into the ulpan as "friends." The official policy of the ulpan is that students are permitted to bring friends into the ulpan, but the administration claims that the rabbis, once within the ulpan, proceeded to organize small study groups of three or four students. The reaction of the administration has been furious; they have reportedly expelled all rabbis from the campus. Currently, none are allowed to enter or teach during the current semester.
Tens of former students have written in to the administration to express their displeasure and to ask for clarification regarding the policy of the ulpan toward rabbis on campus.
The ulpan administration has not left the former students unanswered. The director – Mr. Baruch Kostsewa – has replied that the ulpan is "reconsidering" its relationship with the rabbis in light of the recent events, and that the ulpan is "reassessing" the framework within which rabbis are allowed to enter the ulpan. The administration contends that the previous "framework" has completely broken down. "Rabbis are entering unexpectedly, at late hours of the night, without coordination with the ulpan," was the answer that several former students received. As a result, Ulpan Etzion says it is creating a "new" framework, in which all rabbis will first be thoroughly screened, and will be required to present the material that they are teaching.
Rabbi David Sterne, who has been the unofficial rabbi for the English speaking olim for the past six years, says the measures are unwarranted.
"I understand the need of the administration to re-assess and to re-think their policy vis-à-vis the rabbis," he says, but questions: "How much time should that take? One week, maybe two weeks?
"Moreover, if the difficulty of the administration is that some rabbis were entering the ulpan without authorization, why have they banned all rabbis, including those who entered only with authorization? The administration acknowledges that I, for example entered only with permission, in order to present a one hour class each week. So, what justification is there to ban myself and other rabbis who have always respected the wishes of the administration?"
Rabbi Sterne acknowledges that since 2008 the administration relaxed its position, but claims that "over the course of time, this policy has changed."
"Originally, over one hundred students would show up for an initial assembly that the ulpan arranged with the rabbis. In following years, the numbers dwindled, down to fifty, then thirty and twenty, and finally the last time it was organized, only twelve students showed up," he said.
For its part, the administration says the reason for that drop in numbers is a simple lack of interest, but Rabbi Sterne claims it is the result of the ulpan no longer agreeing to publicize religious events.
"The next thing I knew, the administration demanded that the rabbis stop using the Ulpan Facebook page to publicize their Torah classes.
"Every semester, one of students creates an Ulpan Etzion Facebook group, and begins signing up the new olim who will be attending that semester. They do so even before the semester begins, without input from the administration. However, the administration claims that they 'own' the Facebook page, even though legally it belongs to the student who created the page.
"The administration decided that the rabbis could not publish their classes on the ulpan Facebook page, even though the classes were a part of the Beit Canada schedule."
Another issue has arisen regarding field trips.
"We used to organize tiyulim to the north and south of Israel," says Rabbi Sterne. "We took a bus full of ulpan students to places like Tzfat and Mitzpeh Ramon, to be out in nature and to do Shabbat as a group.
"The tiyulim always took place on Friday and Shabbat, outside of ulpan hours. Even so, the ulpan administration demanded that we cease organizing the trips, despite their popularity with the students."
Reached for comment, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency denied reversing its decision to allow rabbis on campus altogether, claiming instead that the issue was to do with certain speakers not conforming to "the institution's educational standards."
"In order to provide the immigrants with a rich and varied educational experience, outside lecturers on Jewish subjects and other topics are occasionally welcomed onto the premises with prior coordination and approval," he said.
"These lecturers are carefully selected in order to ensure that their presentations do not come in conflict with the institution's commitment to Jewish pluralism and general diversity of opinion…
"In some cases, however, individuals have entered Ulpan Etzion – a private institution – without authorization and have made presentations that did not meet the institution's educational standard.
"Lecturers who are willing to comply with Ulpan Etzion's rules, whose presentations are consistent with the institution's educational mission and commitment to Jewish pluralism, and who receive the administration's approval to present on campus will continue to be welcome at Ulpan Etzion."