ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN (Mar. 17)
Like other boys at the Or Avner-Gershuni Jewish day school, Lesha Kokovikhin wears a yarmulke — and he prefers to be called by the Jewish name, Eliyahu, that he was given at the school.
But despite his Slavic-sounding last name, Kokovikhin comes from a mainly ethnic Chinese family, which is evident from his Asian look.
One of his grandmothers is Jewish — but until last fall, the skinny, soft-spoken Kokovikhin hardly knew anything about Judaism; he attended a public school in his hometown of Taraz in southern Kazakhstan.
The boy’s Jewish heritage gave his family an opportunity to send him off to Almaty, the country’s largest city and, until 1997, the capital.
Kokovikhin — a fourth-grader who is one of 18 boys aged 7 to 17 living at the school’s dormitory for out-of-town students — is the norm rather than the exception. Most of the students living in the dorm come from families with mixed heritage — Kazakh, Russian, Georgian, Armenian — and had no attachment to Judaism.
The school, Kazakhstan’s first and largest Jewish day school, symbolizes the way the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union cares for assimilated and intermarried Jewish families who might not even know they are Jewish if not for their desperate economic conditions.
One in five students at Or Avner-Gershuni live in the dorms year round, and only see their families on vacation.
“Each of our boys has a reason to be here,” says Igor Kizik, a 40-year-old director of the boys’ house.
A few boys at the house come from better-off families who want their children to receive intensive traditional Jewish education before immigrating to Israel.
The majority of those who live in the house, however, are from what Kizik calls “problem families.”
The boys’ house occupies a two-story building surrounded by a small fenced garden, about a mile from the school’s main campus. A similar dorm for girls that houses 11 students is housed inside the school’s main building.
Most of the students who live in the boys’ house were raised by single mothers.
Some students come from families with problems that ring familiar for many in post-Communist countries: alcoholism, drug use and prostitution.
The mother of one third-grader, David, could not support her family after her husband was sent to prison.
“Who would imagine that Jewish children would be in such desperate situations,” said Rabbi Me’er Sheyner, a 25-year-old Lubavitch emissary, who four years ago started the school, which is part of the Lubavitch-run network of Jewish day schools affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.
“And just think what a small effort it takes to change their lives completely,” Sheyner added.
In addition to the classes they take, the out-of-town kids get three meals a day, a bed and a cubby in the boys’ house dorms. They even receive a monthly stipend equivalent to $10, which in fact is much more than an average Kazakh child would have for pocket money.
As with other Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union, there is no tuition.
Last fall, the Lubavitch-operated network opened a second school in Karaganda, in eastern Kazakhstan.
Like other schools that operate under Lubavitch auspices, the Almaty school offers general curriculum classes and Jewish subjects — all taught in a traditional Jewish Orthodox environment.
For the students, the school offers a completely new lifestyle — but even those who have been here for just a few months seem to adjust easily to these new requirements.
One wall in the boys’ dining room is covered with a dozen handwritten posters — each with a Hebrew blessing for a different type of food — all transliterated into Russian.
David, the third-grader, said when he went to see his family during winter break, he wore his yarmulke all the time.
“Just put a hat over it so no one sees it,” he says.
If you ask the students — especially the smaller ones — what they want to be when they grow up, the chances are high you will get “a rabbi” in response.
School officials say they will help kids from problem families who finish the school to continue their Jewish education in Moscow or in Israel, although they admit that training rabbis is not a priority for the school.
Im addition to classes, “what we are striving for is to provide them with better medical care, psychological treatment and activities in their free time,” Kizik says.