Inside a spotless classroom in the Chamah Jewish school in northern Moscow, 12 young boys wearing yarmulkes hunker down earnestly over their math problems.
Comrade Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, stares up at them from an open page in their textbooks, while Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late Luvavitcher rebbe, gazes down from a framed photograph on the wall.
Welcome to Moscow’s newest Jewish school, where religious Judaism and Soviet teaching methods are shaping young Russian hearts and minds.
The school, which opened last month, is run by the Chamah International Society of Jewish Culture and Tradition, a Chabad organization, with support from Moscow’s Department of Education as well as philanthropists in the United States.
These diverse influences are apparent throughout the school: The names of American funders are written on the walls in English and Chabad educational posters describe religious observation in Hebrew.
Meanwhile, the immaculate miniature chairs and tables, the fastidiously tidy arrangement of toys and the daisy-shaped, oversized bathtubs – the school’s “swimming pools” – seem straight out of the pages of “Soviet Life” magazine.
Inside the low-slung, rectangular two-story brick building, 25 teachers, nurses and teachers’ aides are educating and informing their young charges – 72 kindergarten children and 30 elementary school students between the ages of 6 and 10.
Classes include math, music, art and physical education, as well as Hebrew, Jewish tradition and Torah. The kitchen is kosher, and while the kindergartners have classes together, the elementary school is divided into separate sections for boys and girls. Those who come from poor families can stay overnight.
A decade ago, religious education of this type was unthinkable and, indeed, illegal in the Soviet Union. Yet in today’s Russia, Moscow is home to seven Jewish day schools, most of them religious.
Instead of operating underground or fighting against the city authorities, the Chamah school accepts government funding – and non-Jewish students – and their main challenge is the high degree of assimilation among Jewish families here.
“I am Jewish and want to establish Jewish education here so Jewish families can regain what was taken away from them,” said Raisa Schedrinskaya, the school’s director.
Schedrinskaya spent 25 years running a Soviet kindergarten before emigrating to Israel and then returning to Moscow to work in religious Jewish education. “It is very interesting work,” she said.
Back in the classroom, the perfectly behaved children seemed hesitant to speak their minds to a stranger. Eti, 10, explained that she was born in Georgia, emigrated to Israel and then recently moved to Moscow.
With prompting from the school’s staff, she said, “I like it here. We learn Jewish prayers.”
In the boys school, Misha, 7, said he had switched to the new school from a regular Russian day school. “I like it better here,” he said. “They didn’t have Hebrew in my old school.”
The old Soviet belief in a “party line” seemed to hover briefly in the room as an administrator told him what to say. Repeating the adult’s words, Misha added, “I like praying and learning what should be done.”