Vienna university offers rare melting pot for European Jews


VIENNA (JTA) — With more than 250 students living, studying or partying on its campus, quiet moments are rare at the Lauder Business School. But when a lull does occur, it reminds managing director Alex Zirkler of this Jewish university’s opening 10 years ago, when it had only seven students, 15 lecturers and many silent hallways.

“I don’t like to remember those absurd times,” said Zirkler, a Vienna native who has been with the institution ever since the American cosmetics magnate and Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder envisaged opening a first-rate business university for young Jews from across Europe and beyond.

The school’s rapid growth owes largely to an influx of students from the former Soviet bloc, who make up 70 percent of current enrollees. With its ample scholarships and reputation as a boutique university, the school offers them a rare shot at a Western education.

LBS offers an English-language bachelor’s program in international business administration and a master’s in international management and leadership. With a scholarship, students from outside the European Union pay about $7,000 annually — a fee that includes housing and three kosher meals a day, as well as compulsory courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies. E.U. students pay about $1,000 less, thanks to public subsidies for accredited European universities. 

But as LBS marks its 10th anniversary this year, the school’s directors are striving for a more equal balance between East and West that they say will enhance academic performance and fulfill the school’s mission as a rare melting pot for Jewish European academics.

“People come here to network with fellow students in a Jewish, international setting,” said Jacob Biderman, an Israeli-born Chabad rabbi and the LBS chairman. “It is in their interest that the school facilitate cross-fertilization: Our students are not looking to study with only French people or only Ukrainian people, or they would not have come here in the first place.”

Biderman acknowledges it will be a challenge. Given the attractive pricing, students from the East are “obvious, natural clients,” he says.

But Biderman believes LBS has the potential to attract many Western European Jews who are seeking an institution that combines a top-rate secular education with Jewish studies — similar to what Yeshiva University and Brandeis offer in the United States. For students from the East, LBS offers more than just an education, but an opportunity to gain a toehold on new lives in more affluent central and Eastern European countries.

Gabor, who asked that his last name not be used, came from Budapest to study at LBS in 2005. He now works in the banking industry in Vienna.

“Graduating in Austria is pretty powerful when applying and makes it much easier to find work,” said Gabor.

Tatyana Belousova came to LBS from Vladimir, a town east of Moscow, and secured a job in Germany even before she graduated last year.

“An opportunity of getting higher education in Europe and living a Jewish life with no compromises was a decisive factor,” she said of her decision to enroll in LBS at the age of 17.

Some 300 to 400 students apply for admission each year, of which approximately 100 are accepted. Applicants are evaluated by the LBS academic committee on the basis of their grades, but to receive a scholarship and housing, they must apply to the Jewish Heritage Fund, a separate body that is comprised of several private donors and charities.

The fund assesses the “compatibility” of applicants in deciding whether to offer them a spot in the dormitories and up to 80 percent of their tuition. A major part of assessing compatibility, Biderman said, is whether a student is Jewish according to religious law.

The separation between the school and its dorms permits LBS to qualify for funding from the government of Austria, which otherwise would not be allowed to support a school that considers religion in admissions decisions. About one-quarter of the $3.2 million LBS budget comes from the Austrian government. LBS gets significant additional help from public authorities in Austria. The government made an exception to its rule requiring publicly funded schools to admit anyone with a high school diploma, a regulation that would have undercut LBS aspirations to admit only the best.

Austria also helped LBS work around a European rule requiring universities to have at least 2,000 students to be accredited independently. The school’s entire campus, an 18th century palace that once was home to Princess Maria Theresa, was donated by the Vienna municipality. The five buildings have more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, and are arranged around a 54,000 square foot courtyard. Lauder spent $8 million renovating the campus, to which the school has title for 60 years.

Such favorable treatment is part of the reason LBS elected to operate in Austria, where Lauder made many close contacts during his tenure as U.S. ambassador from 1986 to 1987.

“The fact that Ronald Lauder is the institution’s president adds much to our stature in Austria and elsewhere,” Biderman said, though he dismissed the notion that LBS enjoys special dispensations solely on this account.

Austria is keen “to re-establish Vienna as the seat of Jewish intelligentsia,” Biderman said. “They understand we can’t put together the numbers because of the Holocaust.”

On campus, the ancient palace facade creates a jarring juxtaposition with the modern, high-tech classroom interiors, complete with projectors, sound systems and new furniture. Enhancing the mix of old and new is the large metal-and-glass auditorium planted at the center of the ancient interior yard between the classrooms and dorms.

Every year, a few graduates end up staying in Vienna and marrying Viennese Jewish spouses, according to Biderman. In total, the school has learned of 30 weddings of former students who met on campus. The institution even has a photo album with a picture from each wedding.

“We recently received a postcard from Israel with a picture of a baby born to two of our graduates who made aliyah after meeting here,” Biderman said. “We call them LBS babies.”

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