Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Mrs. Weiss has engaged the support of several prominent Diaspora philanthropists and heads of Israeli yeshivas to open a university-level institution in Israel for religious girls. The new academy will offer sophisticated programs in such areas as computer technology, architecture, and pre-medicine for young women who wish to pursue a higher secular education in combination with continuing religious studies.

In response to a question about the impact of antisemitism in Moscow, Mrs. Weiss said that local anti-Jewish bigotry had increased significantly. She related that some people in the neighborhood of the school strongly object to the school’s acquisition and renovation of the adjacent ruined building, even though the building’s improved appearance certainly will enhance the neighborhood. They express bitterness and anger to her, asking, “You already have one building. Why do you need another one?” She tries to explain that the new facility will enable Beit Yehudit to provide more services to the community, including expanded nutrition and other programs to the elderly (both Jews and non-Jews), but such people respond only with “absolute ill will”. Anti-Jewish bigotry also had generated a need for improved security at the school. Mrs. Weiss said that she is very grateful to the Russian Jewish Congress, which is paying for appropriate security measures at Beit Yehudit and other Jewish schools in Russia.

3. Etz Chaim (School #1621) is a modern/centrist Orthodox day school associated with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow. His wife, Dara Goldschmidt, a graduate of Stern College in New York, is active in the administration of the school.

Etz Chaim currently enrolls 368 youngsters, an increase of 33 from the 1998-1999 school year. The school is operating at maximum capacity, with 75 children in its pre-school division, which meets in two sections at separate locations, and 293 youngsters in grades one through eleven. The current eleventh grade class, which numbers 17 pupils, is the first in the history of the school. Rabbi and Mrs. Goldschmidt chose to open the school with a small number of children in pre-school and first grade, adding a new class each year.

According to Principal Vladimir Sklyannoy, 15 youngsters had left the school since the beginning of the academic year, i.e., seven weeks previously, and had emigrated to Israel with their families. Their places would be filled quickly by other youngsters, he said, who would require intensive tutoring in all Judaic subjects and in some secular classes as well.

Aliyah, said Mr. Sklyannoy, is often a 10-year process, with many families enrolling their children in day schools because they are thinking about resettling in Israel and wish to prepare their children for an eventual move. Some families delay departure because elderly relatives require care and are too fragile to accompany other family members in such a journey.

Mr. Sklyannoy anticipates that 25 percent of the graduating eleventh graders will go directly to Israel, entering various universities or preparatory programs for universities. The remaining 75 percent are likely to remain in Moscow, at least for the short term. Etz Chaim is contacting several Moscow technical institutes, a law school, and several liberal arts universities so as to facilitate admissions for its graduates. He expects that some will enter these institutions with advanced standing.

Between 35 and 38 percent of pupils in 1998-1999 were from families with origins in the Caucasus mountain area. However, their proportion of the total school enrollment has dropped by about one-third in 1999-2000, said Mr. Sklyannoy. More Jewish families from that region were going to Israel than coming to Moscow, in part because hostility in Moscow toward people from the Caucasus had intensified.

In response to a question, Mr. Sklyannoy said that between 20 and 25 percent of pupils were from middle class homes, about 45 percent from lower middle class homes, and 30 to 35 percent from poor homes. Many youngsters are raised in single-parent homes in which the custodial parent, almost always the mother, has a low-paying job. The school provides three meals each day to all pupils and distributes food and clothing to those who need such support.

The school curriculum is rigorous in both Judaic studies and general subjects. Fourteen classes in Jewish subjects, including five in Hebrew language, are taught each week to youngsters through seventh grade. From eighth grade on, municipal and state requirements in general studies force the school to reduce its Jewish component to eight classes each week; however, pupils attend additional hours of classes after the regular school day to raise the total of class periods in Jewish subjects in the upper grades to eleven.

In response to a question about antisemitism, Mr. Sklyannoy said that it was a serious problem; he doesn’t expect the situation to improve, but it is possible that its further deterioration is not inevitable. In common with many other Jews, Mr. Sklyannoy thinks that Grigory Yavlinsky is the best candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia, but he also thinks that a Jewish head of state would cause many problems for Russian Jews.17 He hopes that none of the candidates with Jewish background wins the election.

Mr. Sklyannoy proudly showed the writer around the school, pointing out new facilities and equipment that had been acquired since her most recent previous visit, one year earlier. With the assistance of the Russian Jewish Congress, a new computer laboratory has been installed in the school. Both the physics classroom and the biology classroom have received sophisticated new science kits and tools. The school sports hall has been renovated and equipped with new fitness apparatus. Outdoor soccer, basketball, and volleyball areas have been re-surfaced and otherwise improved.

In response to a question about the greatest needs of the school, Mr. Sklyannoy said that Etz Chaim needs two to three more vans to transport youngsters between their homes and the school. (Etz Chaim currently has one van that accommodates 10 youngsters.) The school also needs: funding in support of special tutoring for pupils from families originating in the Caucasus area;18 funding to support higher compensation for highly qualified teachers (who “are more important than computers”), some of whom are leaving for better-paying positions at other Jewish schools and at private secular schools; more teaching materials, such as maps; and funding to support purchase of better-quality and greater amounts of kosher food for the school meals program.

4. Chamah - Jewish Educational Center for Children is a project of Chamah, initially an underground organization founded in Russia in 1953. Now with major centers in Moscow and the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don as well as in Israel and New York, Chamah follows the philosophy of the Chabad movement, but its ties with other Chabad organizations in Russia are tenuous.

The Jewish Educational Center for Children includes a day-care center and preschool serving 85 children between the ages of 18 months and six years, and an elementary school (#1812) enrolling 45 youngsters, ages seven through ten, in grades one through three.19 Administrators at the Center said that the comparatively low number of children in the elementary school is due to heavier emigration of families with children in that age group. Approximately 20 children stay overnight in a dormitory room at the Center one or more nights each week.

Greta Yelinson, the general administrator of Chamah in Moscow, and Anna Gimmelfarb, the director of the Children’s Center, said that most children in their programs are from poor families. Many parents are unemployed, and some who work have not received their salaries in months. About 40 families are headed by single parents. Children from about ten families are refugees from Chechnya. Five to six families leave the Center every year to emigrate to Israel, and a smaller number go to the United States or Germany.

Some children in the center are “invalids”, a Soviet designation for those with various types of handicaps. For example, one child has a severe hearing impairment and entered the school unable to speak. Chamah bought her a hearing aid, and now she speaks very well.

The school day begins at 8:30 a.m. and continues until 6:00 p.m. with various extracurricular activities available in the late afternoon hours. A school bus transports about 40 youngsters from and to the Belarus railroad/metro station in the center of Moscow, where they are met by parents or other adults who accompany them between the station and their homes. The remainder of the pupils live closer to the Center and are brought to the program by family members.

When asked why the school includes only the first three grades, Mrs. Yelinson responded that the municipality will not allocate funding for upper grades in a Jewish school. Reminded that other Jewish schools in Moscow operate a full ten-year curriculum, she suggested that Chamah lacks influence with appropriate government authorities. Chamah has applied to such authorities for a permit to extend the curriculum, she continued, but has been turned down repeatedly. Many parents have said that they would like the school to offer a full ten-year program. After third grade, most pupils transfer to the ORT school (see below), which is secular, or Migdal Ohr, a strongly Orthodox school. Chamah youngsters do very well in both schools, stated Mrs. Yelinson and Mrs. Gim-melfarb, because the Chamah academic program is strong in both general studies and Jewish studies.

Instruction in computer use is part of the Chama curriculum even in primary grades.
(Photo: Chama Jewish Educational Center)

The Center has an above-ground indoor swimming pool and attractive outdoor playground areas. It is exceptionally clean and well-furnished.

Mrs. Yelinson described the financial situation of the Center as precarious. The state pays for the general education program, but Chamah offers bonuses to retain skilled teachers and must cover all expenses of the day-care center, pre-school, and religious studies curriculum, as well as numerous above-budget maintenance costs. Minimal fees for the day-care center, preschool, and dormitory do not cover their operating costs. Prior to the ruble devaluation in August 1998, a small bank sponsored the school, but the bank collapsed at that time and Chamah has been unable to find another benefactor. Mrs. Yelinson said that if someone would guarantee the Center $3,000 each month, Chama would name the Center in that person’s honor.

17. Mr. Yavlinsky is at least half Jewish. His standing in election polls in mid-October was 12 to 15 percent. See interview with Vladimir Shapiro, reported on pp. 22-24.
18. In a 1998 interview, Mr. Sklyannoy said that many youngsters from the Caucasus mountain area have serious psychological problems stemming from one or more of the following: (1) exposure to violence in regional ethnic conflicts; (2) coping with conditions of urban life, e.g., a complex public transportation system in Moscow, after previous residence in relatively small cities or towns; (3) the lower level of education in Georgia and the Caucasus mountain area, especially lesser competence in the Russian language; (4) the normal stress of moving from one area to another; (5) the contrast between their former residences, which often were fairly spacious private houses there and usually are cramped communal apartments in Moscow; and (6) prejudice stemming from their lower level of education and the reality that Georgian and Mountain Jews bear great physical resemblance to their neighbors in Georgia and the Caucasus mountain area, i.e., many of them have significantly darker skin color than Russians, other Slavs, and most Ashkenazi Jews in Moscow.
19. Other Chamah programs in Moscow are described on pp. 32-33.

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