Berlin gets a new Jewish school

Children and teachers at the Chabad kindergarten in Berlin, which is to house a new grade school. (Toby Axelrod)

Children and teachers at the Chabad kindergarten in Berlin, which is to house a new grade school. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN, June 16 (JTA) — The creation of a new Jewish preschool in the city that once was the heart of Nazi Germany reflects a growing need for traditional Jewish education in Germany, observers say. Some say it even could attract young Orthodox families from elsewhere in Europe. Talmud Torah Or Avner is scheduled to open in August with 18 students, JTA has learned. It will be run under the auspices of the Rohr Chabad Center of Berlin. “The Jewish community has made an official decision to take it under its auspices,” said Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal of Chabad Berlin. The school will offer prayer and traditional religious studies for students. “It’s not an Orthodox school to make people Orthodox, but it works on tradition,” Teichtal said. “We want to show people the beauty” of Judaism. The impetus for the new school came from frustrated parents of children at the Heinz Galinski school who, “after truly years of trying to work with the staff there, saw that there was no opportunity to offer their children a traditional Jewish education within that framework,” said Donnell Reed, gabbai at the Chabad congregation in Berlin. The Galinski school is under the umbrella of the city’s Jewish community and isn’t affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism. It is open to non-Jews as well. “It’s a positive development that for the first time since the war there will be a grade school in Berlin that offers a traditional Jewish education,” Reed said. Ronit Vered, director of the Galinski school, declined to comment for this story. But parent association spokesman Roland Kruse-Kraft said he wished the new school well, “as long as the financial resources of the Heinz Galinski school are not impacted.” The new school will not drain state funds from others, Jens Stiller, a spokesperson for the Berlin Senate’s administration for education, youth and sport, told JTA. “This is not cannibalism,” Stiller said. Only a few families are expected to switch from one school to the other. The state funds up to 93 percent of costs for private schools — which teach the required curriculum, plus an additional component of religious studies — with each school funded according either to the size of its student body or the number of spaces it offers. As a private school, the new Talmud Torah Or Avner, or Jueddishe Traditionschule Talmud Torah, will receive state funding at a level yet to be determined. Teichtal said he’s seeking support from international educational organizations, though he wouldn’t provide specifics. Funding already is being provided by the Or Avner Foundation of philanthropist and businessman Lev Leviev, a major supporter of Chabad schools in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. “I am certain that this will bring people to Berlin,” Albert Meyer, president of the Jewish Community of Berlin, told JTA. He said the existing Jewish grammar school and high school here “have little Jewish identity.” “For a liberal-minded person like I am, this is OK,” he said. “But we have to provide sufficient ways to educate traditional families. Therefore this is an enrichment of Berlin.” Some parents have complained about kashrut at the Galinski school, which installed separate kitchens for dairy and meat meals about a year ago under the supervision of Berlin’s Orthodox Rabbi, Yitzchak Ehrenberg. Still, some observant families prepare kosher meals at home for their children. The Galinski school also has offered extra-curricular classes for children from observant families. But parents who want an all-around traditional atmosphere for their children say extra classes aren’t enough. “Rav Teichtal is the only person who does concrete things in that direction,” said Reed, who plans to send his two children to the new school. Meyer said the new school will open with a first-grade class at the site of the current Chabad kindergarten program in former West Berlin. “But the objective is that Yehudah Teichtal would run an educational program on the grounds of the Heinz Galinksi school,” he said. “So we would have the security, and it will be visible that we are working together under the united community,” the Berlin Jewish umbrella organization. The existing Jewish schools in the city — there is also a kindergarten and a high school — run at a high deficit, Meyer said, because they provide services not covered by the state and generally collect lower fees from Russian immigrant families. Germany’s Jewish population has quadrupled to over 100,000 in the past 16 years with an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. “I consider the immigration very positive, but many families are not in a position to pay high education fees,” Meyer said, adding that the Jewish secondary school has cut out its lunch program to save about $194,000 a year. The Galinski school serves 320 children through grade six, including many non-Jewish pupils. The new school also would be open to all, though some say the adherence to strict Orthodox regulations is less likely to attract non-Jews. The ceiling of 93 percent state funding usually is reached in a few years, as new pupils and new grades are added. But because the new school has been officially recognized as a successor to Jewish schools shut down by the Nazis, it has been granted the full 93 percent funding level without a waiting period, according to Kenneth Frisse, spokesman for the Berlin Senate’s administration for education, youth and sport. Meanwhile, Rabbi Josh Spinner, vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder foundation and head of its Orthodox yeshiva in the former East Berlin, said efforts are under way to start an Orthodox preschool in that part of the city. “We will consider attempting to meet any and all Jewish educational needs which develop in an organic way and which for real objective reasons — such as our distant location in east Berlin — cannot be met by the existing Jewish institutions,” he said, adding that no state funding would be sought.

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