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Chabad takes over Argentine Jewish school

BUENOS AIRES, April 5 (JTA) — Its death certificate was all but signed and sealed, but the Wolfsohn School didn’t close its doors. Instead, when the new school year began early this month, the formerly Conservative Jewish day school was able to keep going, thanks to Chabad-Lubavitch. The school is located in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Belgrano. The school turned 61 years old last Rosh Hashanah, while Belgrano’s Jewish community center will turn 100 next year. But Argentina’s financial crises took its toll on the school, which has struggled in recent years. It was staggering under $2 million in debt. Many attempts were made to rescue it, but until the end of the last school year all were unsuccessful. That’s when Chabad took over. Chabad runs four elementary schools and nine kindergartens in Argentine. Three of them are for Orthodox children; the others, including Wolfsohn, are not. School administrators expect a certain level of ritual observance, but less than they would demand in schools aimed at Orthodox children. Though the curriculum’s Jewish content is stronger now than it had been, Chabad acknowledged that it still is not comprehensive enough for Orthodox families. Chabad has spent a generous amount of money to fix up the building and invest in high-quality education. Chabad also added to the school’s name; it is now the Center for Jewish Education Menajem M. Tabacinic — Wolfsohn School. “I’m happy to have saved the school. Now we have the big responsibility of carrying out a project of excellence, in making this school the best not only among Jewish schools but the best in the country,” Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, Chabad Lubavitch’s Argentina director, told JTA. With some 30,000 Jews, Belgrano is one of the largest Jewish neighborhoods in South America. For decades, Wolfsohn has been an important part of the comfortably middle-class Jewish neighborhood’s life. When a local psychologist, Monica Azar, decided to send her daughters to Wolfsohn in 1990, she was comfortable with her choice. The school was “vigorous, with a solid tradition of excellence,” Azar said. It was “a well-known place in the heart of Belgrano.” But it didn’t work out as she had hoped. “Every year we’ve been witnessing how the school was declining, how the management was unable to sustain it,” Azar said. The family has spent years considering whether they should change schools. There aren’t many options. Since 2000, three Jewish kindergartens, three Jewish primary school and two Jewish secondary schools have closed, said Batia Nemirovsky, general director of the Central Council for Jewish Education in Argentina. Since 2001, Jewish educators have been worried about Wolfsohn’s future, she added. Despite the school closings, the number of children registered at Jewish schools in Argentina grew 6 percent over the past four years. The last figures, compiled in late March, showed 18,030 children enrolled in Argentine Jewish schools for the 2005 academic year, which started in March, Nemirovsky said. The three Azar daughters stayed at Wolfsohn. Now, just as the youngest daughter is finishing primary school, the family is watching the school revive. “If you believe in miracles, this certainly is one of them,” said Wolfsohn’s new director, Gustavo Dvoskin, at the Sunday night party school officials threw the day before it opened. Dvoskin couldn’t hide his pride at overseeing the renovation, which took only two months. He also was proud of retaining most of the 150 students who had been in the school through the 2004 academic year. “But I am also aware we have a long way to go,” he said. Many students left the school in 2000 and few enrolled. There was no first grade formed that year, so this year the fifth grade — whose members would have started the school in 2000 — is missing. Daniel Filmus, Argentina’s education minister, was at the party, where he helped put a new mezuzah on the door. To Viviana Resnik de Ravel, a mother of two Wolfsohn students, the evening represented a victory. “The past four years were full of ghosts about the future. As a family, we decided to stay and fight for school continuity,” she said. “Now we are so pleased.”