In the principal’s office of a Jewish day school in Dnepropetrovsk, a mother is fighting to hold back tears. “You cannot turn my son down,” says the woman, who came to register her teenage boy for school in this Ukrainian city. “He will be a good student.”
Grigoriy Skorokhod, principal at the Levi Yitzhak Schneerson School — which, with 630 students, is the largest Jewish day school in the former Soviet Union — later says he had a hard time explaining to the woman why her son couldn’t be accepted.
“She didn’t make a secret that her family had no Jewish connection whatsoever,” says Skorokhod, sitting under two portraits: one of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s president at the time, and the other of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“But she says ours was a very good school, and another foreign language wouldn’t hurt her son anyway,” Skorokhod says. “Jews are caring parents and their education cannot be bad. That’s what she and other parents like her think.”
Most of the Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union register exclusively or predominantly those children who are Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.
That’s the official policy of all Chabad-run schools and schools that operate under the auspices of other Orthodox groups.
However, there is hardly a school in the area that doesn’t have at least some non-Jewish students — not to mention children of mixed families who aren’t halachically Jewish because their mothers are not Jewish.
Not all schools are ready to face the issue openly, so some parents try hard to conceal the fact that they have no connection to Judaism — a huge irony in a country where generations of Jews tried to hide their Jewishness in order to get ahead.
Some schools have opened their doors to non-Jewish students because they can’t enrol enough Jews to fill their classrooms.
“Many schools, especially in the smaller communities, have begun accepting non-Jews, primarily because of the lack of Jewish children,” says Hana Rotman, a leading expert on Jewish education in the former Soviet Union and head of the St. Petersburg-based New Jewish School research center.
The number of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union has grown exponentially in recent years — but, as in other countries, most Jewish children attend public schools. There are now nearly 100 Jewish schools with approximately 15,000 students in the former Soviet Union.
Jewish educators across the region have become accustomed to the fact that most Jewish and mixed families still prefer to send their children to non-Jewish public or private schools.
“Many Jews prefer to stay away from anything Jewish,” Dmitriy Tarnopolsky, Jewish community chairman in the Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhinsk, which has a Jewish day school operated by Chabad.
“They don’t want to stick out, and there are plenty of mixed families with one non-Jewish parent against sending their child to a Jewish school,” Tarnopolsky says.
“We have more new applications from non-Jews than from Jews, whom we usually have to persuade,” he says.
The lack of Jewish kids is evident at Jewish Day School No. 41, a school for children in grades 1-11 in the western Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy — and the demographic situation, the result of a high rate of emigration and an aging community, isn’t promising, principal Irina Savchuk says.
The 14-year-old school, one of the oldest in the former Soviet Union, receives municipal funding. As a result, it has to comply with government regulations that require a minimum number of children — often 25 — in each grade.
To meet that minimum and remain in operation, the school had to begin to accept non-Jewish students a few years ago.
Today at least one-third of the students are non-Jews, and the ratio is even higher in the primary school, Savchuk says.
Savchuk is not Jewish, although the principal she replaced a few years ago was.
In her school, all students are required to study Hebrew and Jewish history and tradition. Every boy is required to wear a yarmulke in classes on Jewish subjects.
“In our history lessons, non-Jewish students also say ‘we’ or ‘our ancestors’ when referring to the episodes from the Jewish past,” says Savchuk, explaining that her goal is to maintain the Jewish character of the school despite the community’s declining Jewish population.
It was natural for Savchuk to become the principal of a Jewish school, she said. She had many Jewish friends as she grew up and then went to work in this city, which until recently had a large Jewish community. Most of the local Jews immigrated to the United States and Israel between the late 1970s and today. The 1989 census registered 16,500 Jews, while the 2001 census counted slightly fewer than 1,500.
Because the issue is touchy in some schools, some parents try hard to conceal the fact that they have no connection to Judaism.
In St. Petersburg, the mother of a primary-school student at a Chabad day school in St. Petersburg, which officially only accepts children who are halachically Jewish, asks that the family name not be used.
“Please don’t write in your article that we are non-Jews. Write that we are real Jews,” says Anna.
Anna says her family had no relation to Judaism, but that the Jewish school is the closest to her home.
She also likes the idea of very small classes, so she asked a Jewish friend to help her child get into the school.
“There are other non-Jews in this grade,” she says.
Anna admits there’s a conflict between the Jewish education her daughter receives in school and what she as a mother is ready to accept at home.
“If she asks me to light [Shabbat] candles at home, I tell her she can do it in school,” Anna says. “But we did celebrate one Jewish holiday at home, the one when you have to light a candle a day, and this was fun,” she says, referring to Chanukah.
Some Jewish educators believe the influx of non-Jewish students in Jewish schools may not be a bad thing.
“This is the result of some positive stereotypes about Jews that many non-Jews share,” such as the Jewish value on education, Skorokhod says.
But some experts say Jewish schools should face the issue openly instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
“The Jewish schools generally have a very good reputation, especially in the provinces,” Rotman says.
“So non-Jewish kids are coming to Jewish schools for better education. But if their percentage has reached some significant level — which already happened in many schools — the school cannot continue working as if nothing has changed.”
For their part, Chabad school officials were unwilling to publicly acknowledge the issue.
(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.