The growth of Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union is unquestionable. Mainly due to an ongoing flow of foreign investment into Jewish education, there now are about 15,000 Jewish students attending some 100 day schools in almost every republic of the former Communist empire.
Yet the vast majority of Jewish families still don’t send their children to Jewish schools.
“Jewish schools here have not become schools for the Jewish masses,” says Hana Rotman, an expert on Jewish education living in St. Petersburg. “This is one of the biggest issues that Jewish schools are facing.”
Many Jewish educators agree that Jewish schools have been particularly successful in attracting socially disadvantaged families that had difficulty adapting to the changes that followed the fall of communism in 1991.
Educators would like to see more children from middle class and upper-middle class families in their schools, but affluent families enjoy a broader selection of schools, and often decide to send their children to non-Jewish schools because they believe these offer better educational opportunities.
In any case, helping socially disadvantaged families is an important mission, educators say.
“Jewish schools are fulfilling an important social role, and if there are people in the community who need this kind of support, it’s up to the community to create such schools,” says Rotman, who heads the New Jewish School, Russia’s leading independent center on issues of Jewish education.
“There are many Jewish families whose status has fallen significantly in recent years,” says Grigoriy Skorokhod, principal of the Levi Yitzhak Schneerson Jewish day school in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, the largest Jewish school in the former Soviet Union.
“What kind of Jews are left in Ukraine?” he asks. “Either those who own some business or can otherwise earn above the average, or those who have fallen very low socially and don’t think of emigrating because they believe they won’t find a job. And this latter category is the majority.”
Some educators say the failure to attract Jews from across the economic spectrum represents a challenge for the future of Jewish education in the region.
“There is a certain crisis of Jewish education,” says Mark Grubarg, principal of the Or Avner Shamir school in St. Petersburg and chairman of the city’s Jewish community.
“I have always thought that a strong general education would help us attract the majority of Jewish students. So we have maintained a strong level of general education — often at the expense of the Jewish component,” he says. “But children still largely stay out of Jewish schools.”
Even attempts to reach out to mainstream secular Jews — by what he sees as “minimizing” requirements of the Jewish tradition in order to maintain coed classes, for example — haven’t proven especially successful, according to Grubarg.
“The wealthy still prefer to send their children to private schools, and more talented children go to specialized schools,” he says.
Others argue that Jewish schools must improve academically to compete with the best secular private schools.
“Many parents with a kopeck in their pocket want to send their children to a private school,” says Meir Stambler, president of Bet Hana, a Chabad-run Jewish teacher’s training college in Dnepropetrovsk.
“We cannot reject the poor children, nor should we turn our back on those who have a kopeck. So we are talking about how to make our schools competitive, and this can be done through raising the qualification of our teachers,” Stambler says.
Jewish schools offer certain material perks that make them attractive to struggling families. None of the Jewish schools in the region charges tuition, most offer free hot meals and some offer free transportation and even some social aid to the neediest families.
Jewish leaders and educators like to speak about building community around the day schools, putting students and their parents at the core of the Jewish future in the Soviet successor states.
With no credible data available, however, it’s unclear whether day-school graduates remain closer to the organized community than graduates of non-Jewish schools when they come of age.
However, Jewish educators say they have noticed one clear pattern that may become crucial in preserving a Jewish nucleus in communities where the intermarriage rate exceeds 75 percent.
“The school helps our kids not to intermarry,” Skorokhod says. “It makes them closer to each other.”
“The whole purpose of the Jewish day school is to make a Jewish boy marry a Jewish girl,” says a Jewish educator in Kiev who asked not to be identified. “That’s the only thing that matters.”
Few Jewish-school students talk openly about marriage, but many say their Jewish school experience will influence their lives.
“What I got here is a strong Jewish identity,” says Olya Elshanskaya, a graduate of the Moscow School No. 1311.
Grigoriy Shoykhet, principal of the Or Avner Jewish School in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, likes to tell how he once had to pull two fighting students apart.
“One of them told another that he wasn’t Jewish, and this second boy rushed to defend his Judaism with his fists,” recalled Shoykhet, who as a young man was Ukraine’s amateur boxing champion.
“Ten years ago I could not imagine that such a thing would happen. This is the Jewish pride that I so much want to instill in our students, so that they grow up with self-confidence, and don’t have the ‘Jewish complexes’ ” that their parents had, he says.
“What’s most important to me in our school is that our children say aloud: I’m a Jew. It is so simple and natural for them. The rest is not as important,” says Anna Schepkina, principal of the Gershuni School in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Still, that Jewish pride may have its limits. School officials don’t like to talk about it, but at least some schools issue high-school certificates that don’t list Jewish subjects unless the graduate explicitly asks for it.
Anti-Semitism no longer prevents young Jews from choosing a college or career of their choice. Yet some prefer to keep their Jewish-school experience secret to avoid “complications” when applying for college. They fear that a Jewish-school background may not sit well with some college administrators.
“If you go to a Jewish university or will study in Israel, then you need to show your Jewish grades,” says Andrei Yegorov, a Jewish day school graduate.
For that reason, Dolores, who graduated from a Jewish girls school a few years ago, received two different high-school diplomas. In addition to her Jewish school certificate, she received one from a non-Jewish high school where she was allowed to take exams.
But students in a region that has long been plagued by anti-Semitism don’t seem taken aback if they sometimes have to hide their studies of Hebrew, Jewish tradition or Jewish history.
“More important is what is left here and here,” Yegorov says, pointing at his head and his heart.
(This article is one of a five-part series of articles about Jewish education in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.)
TEACHING FOR THE FUTURE Series
Part 1: In ex-USSR, schools haven for Jewish identity
Part 2: In ex-USSR, non-Jews in Jewish schools
Part 3: Returned Israelis enroll in Russian Jewish schools
Part 4: In Russia, Jewish school students lead parents>
Part 5: The future of Jewish schools in the ex-USSR
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.