In Ulpan Hebrew class at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, laughter and camaraderie fill the classroom as students learn to speak conversational Hebrew.
"The class [is] enjoyable, non- threatening and fun," said David Zolet, a Columbia resident and member of Temple Isaiah, who first took the course on a whim after his son brought home a flier.
Years later, Zolet is attending Ulpan as an advanced student, attesting to the attraction of this unique method for learning Hebrew.
Unlike conventional Hebrew courses, which emphasize learning the alphabet and decoding the written language, the Ulpan method focuses on a living, conversational approach to Hebrew.
Ulpan is the Hebrew word for intense, immersion language training. Developed 52 years ago in Israel to accommodate its many European immigrants who needed to learn quickly to converse in Hebrew, it emphasizes mastery of the modern, spoken language in an informal environment.
In Columbia, two Ulpan classes are sponsored by Baltimore Hebrew University.
A beginners class meets Wednesday nights at the home of teacher Mali Bendor and an advanced class, also taught by Bendor, meets Tuesday nights at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. Both classes meet from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
In Bendor's classes, students participate in conversations about current events, read Hebrew newspapers, learn about Israeli culture and talk to one another in everyday ways.
Classes can include watching Hebrew videotapes, learning about Israeli politics or sampling Israeli cuisine.
"Teaching adults is the most rewarding feeling. They are really very enthusiastic. They love what they are doing," said Bendor, an immigrant from Israel.
"They are professional people who come after a full day of work. They're very dedicated," she said. "They come tired, but when they finish class, they are beaming."
Beginning students progress from elementary words and phrases to writing compositions of their own choosing and conversing freely in class.
Learning about Israeli culture and Judaism is interwoven with learning the language.
"Religion is integrated into the language. ... Israel is a religious state," said Bendor. "There is always a connection that can tie back to the synagogue."[The students] find more meaning in the words they are using in their prayers," she said. "I see the light bulbs go on and they say, 'Oh, this word was in my prayer.'"
Yoel Wachtel, director of the Ulpan program for Baltimore Hebrew University, said: "We have families taking the class, families visiting or returning from Israel, those attracted by the Scriptures ... gentiles, retirees. We get a very wide spectrum of students. We bring to our class the flavor of Israel.
"I have a feeling there is a thirst for Hebrew in the community," Wachtel added. "Ulpan has been a very successful program of Baltimore Hebrew University for more than 30 years.
"In Columbia, the pillars of the Jewish community take the class," he said. "The advanced class is very enthusiastic, hard-working, very bright. I think we have a great future there."
Said Bendor, "It's a commitment. You have to pass the hurdle of starting, and then you get more excited."
Zolet has passed that hurdle, and spiritual rewards have followed.
"It was important to my son to see his parents involved in a serious study of Judaism and Jewish studies," he said. "It isn't enough just going to services.
"Now I can read the prayers and understand them in a personal way," Zolet said. "Understanding the language lends a lot of richness to the prayers. Words have meanings on several layers, many shades of meaning rolled into one, that may not come through in translation."
Richard Steinberg agreed.
"It's a revelation to find yourself able to understand an ancient text," said Steinberg, an engineer who started taking the class with his daughter and continued after she entered college. "A surprising amount of ancient Hebrew becomes understandable."
Zolet says he feels much more connected to Israel and Judaism because he has continued to study the language.
"I have a good sense of what Israel is like," he said. "In religious school, my son is learning Hebrew words, and I can sit down with him and point out to him which words are phonetic exercises and which words are true.
"There has been a real spirit of friendship among the five or six in the core group for over two years," he said. "Mali Bendor is extraordinary and very patient."
Bendor says her goal is to make the studies new, fresh and exciting.
"I tailor my teaching to the students' needs," she said. "I would very much welcome new students to my class, Jewish and non-Jewish, from all backgrounds."
Said Steinberg, "I recommend it highly. It's a lovely thing to do."
Ulpan classes are offered year-round in Columbia and the Baltimore-Washington community. Information: 410-578-6902.