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Teaching for the Future [part 1] Russian Schools Build Identity Where Judaism Once Languished

April 8, 2005
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On a bulletin board at a Jewish school for boys in St. Petersburg, one large-print announcement catches the eye: “Registration for brit milah at the principal’s office is open 24 hours,” it says, inviting students to undergo circumcision.

A few dozen young boys wearing yarmulkes run around the school. The sign indicates the ongoing mission of Jewish schools across the former Soviet Union — to bring young Jews closer to Judaism and help fill the void that communism and assimilation left in the generations of their parents and grandparents.

“Most of our kids cannot get any Jewish education in their families or in the community,” says Grigoriy Lipman, the principal of Moscow Jewish Day School No. 1311.

“We may try to educate their parents, but by and large the students still can’t get much of Judaism beyond the school walls.”

The emergence of Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union is one of the more remarkable stories of a Jewish revival in countries long hampered by anti-Jewish restrictions.

Though only a small percentage of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, the region has witnessed a virtual explosion in the number of Jewish day schools, particularly over the last several years.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there were only six Jewish day schools in the former Soviet republics, all created in the year or two before the fall of communism, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika loosened restrictions on Jewish activities.

Today, across the former USSR, there are nearly 100 Jewish schools with a total enrollment of some 15,000 elementary- and secondary-school students — some of them non-Jews attracted by the schools’ reputations.

While the size of Jewish population in these countries has shrunk over the last 15 years, several new schools open each year.

Most of the day schools in the area work under the auspices of Jewish religious groups, but they tend to be strong in general studies as well.

“Jewish education should not be only about tradition and the Torah, it should always be a high-level education,” says Meir Sheyner, a Chabad rabbi involved in several day schools in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan.

The Or Avner School in the Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhinsk is typical of the smaller Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union.

The school has grown from 56 to 150 students, and hopes to expand further.

“I think we still have many kids of school age in our town who have yet to come to our school,” says Dmitriy Tarnopolsky, the chairman of the Jewish community in this industrial center of 300,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

Community leaders and parents agree that Jewish schools provide a valuable way of fostering Jewish family life and values among the largely assimilated Jewish population in the former Soviet Union which may be as large as 1 million people.

“We started celebrating Jewish holidays at home for the first time when our older son enrolled in this school 10 years ago,” says Lina, the mother of two sons. One son finished a Moscow Jewish day school several years ago, and the other is still in school.

“Over the years, this has become a family tradition in our house to celebrate the main Jewish holidays, of which my husband and I were hardly aware before,” she says.

Beyond that, say parents and Jewish communal leaders, is the fact that Jewish day schools help Jewish kids to build positive experiences of being Jewish, something their parents never had in the Soviet era.

“Their Jewish identity is something they take for granted, unlike the generation of their parents for whom being Jewish could often turn into a lifelong trauma,” says one Jewish educator in Ukraine who asked not to be identified.

Every Jewish school across the former Soviet Union offers a general studies component that is mandatory in its country. The general studies courses consume the lion’s share of class hours, leaving some eight to 10 hours a week for classes in Hebrew and Jewish history and tradition.

Many of the Jewish day schools, especially the more established ones, enjoy the same status as municipal public schools, which entitles them to free use of school buildings, subsidized utilities and municipal salaries for general-studies teachers.

Some of the Jewish schools are private. Generally, these schools do not have access to these benefits, but mainly are subsidized by Israeli and overseas donors.

There are few differences between religious Jewish schools and those that bill themselves as secular Jewish schools — especially since both kinds of schools cater to the overwhelmingly secular Jews who make up the majority of Jewish communities in the former Soviet republics.

Some nonreligious Jewish schools encourage the boys to wear yarmulkes and the girls to wear longer skirts.

A nonreligious Jewish school also may include a mini-synagogue that doubles as a classroom for lessons on Jewish tradition. And many Chabad schools are coed institutions, unlike their counterparts in North America.

“Our schools are run by Chabad, but they are for all” Jewish children, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S., an umbrella group for Chabad-run activities in the region.

Through its Or Avner Foundation, Chabad runs about 60 percent of all Jewish day schools in the FSU and is the most dynamic organization in terms of investment in Jewish education in the region.

“What we offer is a basic Jewish education coupled with a fundamental pride in Israel and values of traditional Judaism,” Berkowitz says. “For 90 percent of the kids, we’re just giving a mainstream Jewish education.”

The other 10 percent, he says, are children from religious families.

Some of the Or Avner schools offer separate yeshiva-type tracks for boys and girls interested in more religious-oriented education, but most of the 55 or so day schools the group runs differ little from other Jewish schools.

In fact, throughout the former Soviet Union, schools cater to the same type of Jewish population.

“There are simply no religious Jewish kids in the FSU,” Berkowitz says. “The only Jewish background kids here have is that they come from Jewish parents.”

In the former Soviet Union, he says, “we’re reaching out to the mainstream, and our schools are first of all community day schools.”

According to Or Avner sources, the foundation spends more than $10 million a year to support its day schools, or about $100 a month on each student.

Israeli diamond mogul Lev Levayev, the major Chabad sponsor in the area, also is Or Avner’s primary donor. He founded the group a decade ago in honor of his late father, Avner.

Aside from Levayev and other private donors, many schools in the area receive substantial support from foreign Jewish groups.

World ORT is involved in 15 schools in the region, focusing on computer training and technological education to enable students to compete in the job market.

About half of the Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union — mostly non-Chabad schools — receive some support from the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Jewish Agency, which together oversee the Jewish curriculum and cover the salaries of Hebrew teachers, many of whom are brought from Israel on short- or medium-term contracts.

Because Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union have become pet projects of some large foreign donors, none of them charge tuition.

Furthermore, almost every school has a system of additional incentives to attract Jewish families — including subsidized meals, free transportation, free summer camps and after-school activities, some medical services and even clothing and food aid for the neediest families.

(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.)

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