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Teaching for the Future [part 3] Children of Returned Emigres Add Spice to Russian Jewish Schools

April 8, 2005
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With his shaggy hair, a black T-shirt featuring a heavy metal band and a CD player on his waist, Boris Ulyansky looks a lot like an Israeli teenager. Until recently, that’s what he was.

The son of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel, Ulyansky returned to Russia a few years ago with his family when his father got a job as an executive with a Moscow-based company.

His parents decided to send their son to a Jewish day school in Moscow.

“The choice was mostly due to the atmosphere here. It’s comfortable and easy to be here,” says Ulyansky, a graduate of Moscow Jewish Day School No. 1311.

“The distance between the teachers and the students here is much less than in other Russian schools; it’s almost like in Israel here,” he adds.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a huge wave of Jewish emigration from the former communist empire, mostly to Israel.

When the dust settled and some of the former Soviet republics stabilized economically — which coincided with an economic downturn and heightened security concerns in Israel — some of the emigrants returned to their native countries.

Many returned with their children, some of whom were born in Israel or had gone there when they were quite young. Many of these children end up at Jewish day schools across the former Soviet Union.

“There is an ongoing flow of returning families in our school,” says Grigoriy Lipman, principal of the Moscow Jewish day school, which has been open for 14 years.

“These are kids who have spent five to seven years in Israeli schools, who often come here without any knowledge of Russian,” says Lipman, whose school has 340 students in first through 11th grade, when Russian high school ends.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but as much as 10 percent of the students in Russian Jewish schools in larger cities across the former Soviet Union, such as Moscow, are believed to be from families that returned from Israel.

“Of course, these kids first come here with very good Hebrew,” says Sharon Ganon, an Israeli who teaches Hebrew at Moscow School No. 1311. “But the longer they live here the worse their Hebrew is getting.”

She recalled the time a second-grader started crying in class: He realized he was forgetting the Hebrew alphabet.

“They clearly do not speak Hebrew at home. They have three to four hours of language a week, and that’s it,” Ganon said.

Some teachers say the presence of these students returning from Israel may interfere with the strong pro-Israel feelings the schools try to instill.

“There is a certain conflict here,” says Ganon, who admits that she finds it difficult to address such situations.

“It may seem to their parents that it’s easier here,” she says. “But it’s not easy for the child in the first place” because they have to make new friends and adapt to a new culture.

“In almost every class, I have two or three of these kids. A few years ago such kids were a rarity here, but now there are more and more of them,” she says.

“In the beginning these kids look like Israeli kids. But as time goes by, they start to talk in Russian at Hebrew classes. They start to listen to Russian music and they want to be just like the others around them.”

Once, during a lesson, Ganon caught a glimpse of how these students feel about Israel and about being torn between two countries.

A primary school class was learning the Hebrew verb “lagur,” which means “to live.”

“I asked the students where they want to live, and the few Israeli kids in class said they didn’t know,” Ganon says. “That reflects to me what’s going on in their families. They know what’s going on in Israel, and you can’t tell them that Israel is the most wonderful place on earth.”

But Ganon says there are moments when the Israeli students show their ties to the Jewish state.

At a ceremony a few years ago marking the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, she says, “I saw the difference between them and the Russian kids. Many Israeli kids had tears in their eyes, unlike the Russian kids, to whom it all looked much more irrelevant.”

An experience at one Tu B’Shevat celebration may be more typical, however. The kids listened to Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, and one of the girls started to cry. When asked why, she said she missed Israel.

“But a couple of months later, on Purim, the same girl already sang a song in Russian,” Ganon said.

Many students, particularly the younger ones, quickly lose their ties to the home they left in Israel.

Ganon recalled how at the beginning of one school year a primary school student said his name was Shimon, a Hebrew name. A few months later, however, when the teacher addressed him as Shimon, he insisted that she call him by his Russian name.

“‘Call me Semyon!’ ” Ganon says the student said. “He almost shouted at me.”

(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.)


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

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