October 14, 2019

What They Did for Love

Love always seems to be in bloom on the Los Angeles Ulpan. The high school students who travel to Israel each summer under Ulpan auspices all return to L.A. filled with love for the Jewish homeland. And a surprising number of ulpanistim – and staff members – have found their besherts through the Ulpan connection.

The Los Angeles Ulpan is one of the nation’s oldest Israel trips geared to teenagers. It was launched by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles in 1964, three years before the Six-Day War gave American Jews a passionate new enthusiasm for Eretz Yisrael. Under the visionary leadership of then-BJE head Irwin Soref, the Ulpan was conceived as a nondenominational program, open to young Jews throughout the L.A. basin.

From the start it has contained a classroom component, including formal instruction in Hebrew language and Jewish culture, for which students are granted course credit at their high schools back home. Current BJE head Gil Graff emphasizes that this strong educational emphasis makes the Ulpan unique among the teen Israel trips that now abound.

One key aspect of the program in Soref’s era has not survived. The earliest ulpanistim, housed in an agricultural youth village, were required to spend hours each day tilling the fields. Longtime Ulpan director Eddie Friedman (1970-1979) explained that “when you get up early to pick potatoes, it gives you one dimension of what life was like in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Now, Friedman acknowledged, “Israel has changed, and our vision of it has changed.” Today’s participants are housed in an air-conditioned dorm. When not involved with their studies, they tour the country’s most scenic and historic spots. They also devote one of the trip’s eight weeks to a specialty activity, choosing from among such options as a sea-to-sea hike, an archaeological dig, and a chance to train with the Israel Defense Forces.In celebration of the L.A. Ulpan’s 36th year, a gala dinner is being held on June 6. At the dinner, alumni who have become prominent doctors, lawyers, rabbis, and Jewish educators will honor the Ulpan’s three longest-serving directors. Along with Friedman, these are Danny Spitzer (1979-1982) and Zvi Weiss (1988-1992). One thing these men have in common, along with their dedication to Jewish youth, is the fact that all three married former ulpanistim.

Eddie Friedman met his wife, Esther, who had participated in the 1968 Ulpan, when she came to his BJE office seeking a job in the afterschool youth program known as Havurat Noar.

Danny Spitzer himself was a student on an Ulpan that was made unforgettable by the outbreak of the Six-Day War just prior to the group’s departure. His future wife, Elaine, went on Ulpan several years later. They discovered each other in law school, and today Spitzer is an Encino attorney with three children of his own.He admits, however, to feeling some nostalgia for the lively days when he led the Ulpan: “Every year about this time, I start having that itch.”

Early in the Danny Spitzer era, there was an Ulpan participant named Debra. Ten years later, she was hired as a counselor by director Zvi Weiss. Both Debra and Weiss stayed on in Israel after the Ulpan was over, she to study and he to serve in the Israeli army. One thing led to another, and the newlyweds shared their honeymoon with one hundred teenagers during Ulpan ’91.

Ulpan’s role as a catalyst for romance is illustrated by the story of Anne Siegal and Bill Barnett, participants in the 1972 Ulpan. He was then 14 and interested in sports, not girls. She was 15 and had a boyfriend back home. For Siegal the highlight of that trip was meeting David Ben-Gurion, who made it a point to greet ulpanistim when they visited his kibbutz in the Negev. Barnett mostly remembers toiling in the fields and eating chicken at almost every meal.

In December 1981, Siegal and Barnett both attended an Ulpan reunion. (He was supposed to play tennis that day, but his partner canceled.) They instantly recognized one another, and it was “Some Enchanted Evening.” This year the Barnetts will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary.

Though on every Ulpan, some teens hook up with members of the opposite sex, “dating” among ulpanistim is generally discouraged. Zvi Weiss explains, “Ulpan is such a group experience that by coupling up with someone you’re frequently missing out on something.”

But two ulpanistim from the summer of 1992 would not agree. Marieka Barton-Elson and Daniel Schotland, then both 16, fell for each other early on. They walked around Jerusalem holding hands and once were punished for sneaking out of their bunks at night to be together. On a reunion weekend held at the end of that summer, they announced to all their Ulpan friends, “The next reunion will be our wedding, and you guys are all invited.” They did not in fact tie the knot until Oct. 10, 1999; the guests included eight former ulpanistim who had been there when it all began. Today the Schotlands often play host to Ulpan pals for Shabbat dinners in their Bay Area home.

Who knows what this year’s Ulpan will bring? Last summer, at a parent orientation before the departure of the Ulpan ’99 group, Jeff and Nancy Davis of Thousand Oaks discussed what lay ahead for their 16-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Nancy Davis admitted she was jealous of Tiffany’s exciting summer plans. And Jeff Davis had a small prayer: “Please, let her meet a nice Jewish boy.”

For information on the June 6 dinner, call Nina Bernstein of the BJE at (323) 761-8612. To learn more about the Los Angeles Ulpan program, call Stacey Barrett, BJE director of community youth.