The decision to send children to Jewish schools sometimes causes problems for Jewish families in the former Soviet Union. “Our family isn’t traditional, and the only Jewish school we have here is a religious one,” says Anna, a Jewish community worker in Dnepropetrovsk, echoing a common concern of many Jews here who feel a cultural link to Judaism but not a religious one.
Anna, who asked that her last name not be used, had to make a difficult decision a few years ago over whether to send her then-6-year-old daughter to the local Jewish school.
“Yes, the kids in school are secular, but I’m not sure to what extent we as parents are ready to accept everything kids receive in this school,” she says.
In the end, Anna decided not to send her child to a Jewish school because she was uncomfortable with the level of Jewishness the school taught.
Anna’s dilemma is not the only one that Jewish schools can pose for parents in the former Soviet Union.
For other parents, the issue becomes changing their own lifestyles to adapt to what their children are learning in school. Some seem ready — if a bit reluctant — to do so.
“One day my son came back from school and said from now on he would eat only kosher food,” says the mother of a student from St. Petersburg. “Of course I was shocked. We never had anything like this in our family. Even my grandfather, who was born in the 19th century, never did anything Jewish — not to mention eating kosher.”
The mother, who asked not to be identified, says she is preoccupied with practical questions such as where to get her son kosher food, which isn’t readily available in the former Soviet Union, even in larger communities like St. Petersburg.
“Twice a month I go to the synagogue to buy a chicken for him,” the woman says. “My son has changed a lot in this school. I can’t say I’m unhappy, but what if one day he decides to become a rabbi or something like that?”
Other parents whose children adopt some level of Jewish observance while attending Jewish school are more ready to accept the change.
“My parents looked with interest at what was happening to me,” says Eliyahu Fidel, a graduate of Pri Yitzhak, a St. Petersburg Jewish boys school, who now lives on his own. “They’re not helping me, but they’re not against it.”
Fidel, who was in one of Pri Yitzhak’s first graduating classes in the mid-1990s, now is a tutor at the school.
“The school has come to our homes. I wear a kipah at home,” says Andrei Yegorov, a Pri Yitzhak student who like many others in religious schools here received a Jewish name — Natan — when he was circumcised as a student.
Asya, a teenager at a Moscow Jewish school, says she celebrates all Jewish holidays but usually does so at the home of a classmate whose father is a rabbi.
“My parents are not against it, but I can’t do it at home properly and my parents aren’t eager to participate,” Asya says. “Sometimes I can see they feel relaxed when I’m doing this elsewhere.”
(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.