Mindspacers Unplugged: Tamar Pross, Founder of Citizen Cafe

We sat down with the founder of Citizen Cafe to find out how they re-invented Uplan courses.

Written by Maayan Samuni

5 months ago

Tamar is an Israeli-Australian entrepreneur, certified enneagram coach, a documentary film producer, and avid soy hafuch drinker. Tamar and her team sit in their offices at Mindspace, Tel Aviv and are constantly working toward creating an environment in which learning Hebrew is fun, effortless and directly connected to the dynamic lifestyles of internationals in Tel Aviv. Meet Tamar and Citizen Cafe, the future of language learning.

Tell us about Citizen Cafe.

Citizen Cafe is a very innovative Ulpan. We felt that most Ulpan classes teach Hebrew to people who make Aliyah or international people who move to Israel in a very backward thinking learning process. We found that most people were having a very negative experience in their Ulpan courses. Our goal is to offer the most intuitive, relevant, street-smart way to learn Hebrew. We reinvented the ulpan, so you can have more fun improving your Hebrew, in less time.

What is the difference between Citizen Cafe Ulpan and other Ulpan courses?

Our goal is to try and get the international community to learn conversational Hebrew, feel that they are becoming part of the local culture, and want to stay in Israel. It’s not just about learning a language, it’s about understanding cultural nuances, and no one else is really teaching that. So, what we do is we’ve taken Hebrew to the next level, to where people actually just learn the way locals communicate. Efrat Chen, who started Citizen Cafe with me, is the real star, she developed a method that is very much focused on the conversational aspect. We use a very special method that is around the positive psychology of learning.

Classic Ulpan courses are very long hours every day; 5 hours a week, 5 hours a day, every day. They tend to teach very outdated Hebrew from a textbook, that the students weren’t benefiting from. We found that the students weren’t speaking more Hebrew, they weren’t integrating and the biggest problem was that they weren’t feeling connected and local. 

Our learning is very fun and effective, in small groups of eight people and it is only twice a week for an hour and a half. This makes it very doable for very busy people. We believe that you don’t need a lot of time to learn a language. You need a little time to learn it, and a lot of time to practice. We give a lot of headspace to practice in order to be motivated to speak Hebrew and that’s why people have a huge improvement in their Hebrew when they learn with us.

How did Citizen Cafe get started?

It started very spontaneously. I had no intention to open up an ulpan initially, but I wanted to really help the international community. I’m Israeli/Australian so I have a lot of international friends that moved to Tel Aviv and left jobs there. All these educated and sophisticated people I know would go to ulpan and they would sit there like first graders and learn Hebrew that was just irrelevant and it made them feel embarrassed. I started helping them as a friend and then I met Efrat, who is the best teacher in the country for Hebrew, who developed her own method for teaching Hebrew and decided to test what would happen if we taught people in a cafe. It started from us trying her method and we would buy the students coffee as part of the course and people just loved coming to our lessons. Six became ten, which became 20 and today we have twenty-eight classes at a time and four semesters a year.

Why did you choose to move to Mindspace?

We grew so much that we had to move our operation, so we picked Mindspace. We picked Mindspace because we couldn’t just leave the cafe and this urban feel, which is everything that we’re about, to just a regular campus. It would be very boring. So, we thought, what is the coolest thing in Tel Aviv? Rothschild; it is the hub of the Israeli startup scene, so when we found Mindspace we thought that this venue was perfect, and it is! When we first came here we were overwhelmed by how gorgeous everything is. We felt that this was a place that would make students think that it’s worth studying here and that it’s worth spending your time here. Mindspace definitely works really well with what we do.

What do your students like about the Mindspace environment?

They love the environment! They feel like they are part of something that is local and hip. They feel that this is the place to be and these are the people they enjoy hanging out and learning with. Our ulpan is community-based. Many people end up meeting new people and making some of their best friends. We bring in a like-minded community, who want to be part of the start-up scene. They are interested in socializing with local Israelis that are here at Mindspace and also other internationals as well.

Do you offer different levels of Hebrew classes?

Absolutely. We have seven levels from absolute beginners to highly advanced. Highly advanced could be people who have spent 20 years in Israel, think they speak fluent Hebrew, but just don’t like themselves as much in Hebrew. We do a free assessment, for anybody who is interested. They get to sit with Efrat herself, or one of our senior teachers and just speak for about fifteen minutes; that is all we test. We don’t test writing because we don’t care about that as much. After, we will know exactly what level you should go into and whatever we teach with that level you will have to trust us that it is right for you and it is exactly what is going to get you to move your Hebrew up.

What does the day-to-day look like?

We found out the best times to hold classes in order to accommodate our courses to these mostly super busy people. We only have courses in the morning and the evening. We hold up to five classes at a time. Each class is only an hour and a half. We don’t believe in learning in a classroom for more than an hour and a half, because your brain shuts and it is a waste of your time and your money. We teach the kind of Hebrew that you actually want to learn and that makes it easier for you to communicate and sound more natural. It is very important to say that we filter out all the unnecessary noise of Hebrew that you just don’t need, which is usually offered in old-school theoretical textbooks.

What are your plans for the future?

There is a lot of interesting demand in different ways. For now, we are all about trying to improve the quality of our learning. We’re trying to create better platforms for students to get more material, more social engagement, and more community involvement. We are really trying to just make everything even better as much as we can.  

What has been Citizen Cafe’s biggest risk?

It was a huge risk because I didn’t think this was up my alley at all. Initially, nothing was about language for me, it was about creating a platform of services for internationals. We quickly realized that the most interest was in language, so for me, it was a surprise and it almost went against what I thought I wanted to do and then I ended up falling in love with this concept.

What do you love most about your job?

It is really incredible to see students who come out crying after the first class because they were so emotional, excited, and thrilled that suddenly someone is teaching them in a way they can connect with and giving them what they need. We don’t focus on the boring structured way of learning Hebrew and so learning the language becomes lighter. We watch our students go through a process and it is the most fulfilling thing in the world.

Tell us about your team.

We have an extraordinary team. Everyone that works in our office is international, so that makes it very interesting. We have an amazing backend team. On the other hand, all of our teachers are 100% Israeli, who have a very special DNA. We don’t have regular teachers. There is this charm about them; very energetic, theatrical background. Our teachers are dynamic, engaging, and stunning people, that make the students want to come in and learn. They are captivating and engaging and they hold the class so beautifully and the method works. Full credit goes to the team for being so incredible.

Check Citizen Café’s latest magazine blog here: https://www.citizencafetlv.com/magazine/

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