Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

5. World ORT Union operates three day schools in the post-Soviet sucessor states -- in St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia, and in Odessa in Ukraine. A new school will open in Kyiv in January, and ORT will install extensive programs in two existing Chabad schools in the near future, in Samara (Russia) and Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine). The Moscow ORT Secondary School (School #326), which was established in 1995, currently enrolls 350 pupils in grades five through 11.

The first hour of the writer’s visit to the school was in the company of a small ORT fundraising mission of lay leaders from England and the United States. The group was led by Robert Singer, Director General of World ORT, and Dr. Gideon Meyer, Deputy Director General and Director of Operations.20 Mr. Singer informed the delegation that, although the school was the most technologically advanced secondary school in Moscow when it opened in 1995, it no longer is the city leader. Other, locally-sponsored, schools now offer more sophisticated programs. The area of greatest need, said Mr. Singer, is developing appropriate technology curricula for the middle school grades. Delegation members were taken on a tour of the school and later watched a student talent show staged in their honor. The group then proceeded on a sightseeing tour of Moscow and would fly out to Samara on the following day.

Following departure of the fundraising mission, the writer met with Vladimir Lerner,21 Director General of ORT for the CIS and Baltic States, and Vladimir Leshiner, the school principal. Mr. Leshiner said that 80 percent of pupils are Jewish according to the Law of Return;22 perhaps half of that number are Jewish according to halakha. Twenty percent of all pupils have no Jewish ancestry at all; most such youngsters reside in the general neighborhood of the school, a policy intended to advance the community relations agenda of ORT.

School policy also provides for the admission of all Chamah pupils who wish to enroll at ORT following completion of the third grade at Chamah. Almost all Chama youngsters enroll at ORT, rather than at Migdal Ohr or at the Chabad school (also known as the Kuravsky School, in reference to its principal, Zev Kuravsky), said Mr. Leshiner. The school also receives “many” applications from youngsters currently enrolled in Beit Yehudit, Etz Chaim, and the Kuravsky school because families find these schools too religious; however, ORT policy is encourage all pupils enrolled at other Jewish schools to remain in those schools. It prefers to accept new students from non-Jewish schools so that Jewish youngsters with no previous exposure to Judaism have the opportunity to become acquainted with their heritage.

Mr. Leshiner estimates that about one-third of the families with children in the school are poor. Many of these are single-parent families with the custodial parent unemployed or in a low-paying job. Some youngsters are cared for by grandparents, who are dependent upon inadequate pensions and meager child-support payments from the state.

Perhaps ten families with children in the ORT school are wealthy. Typically, they own automobile dealerships or chains of retail shops. Mr. Leshiner calls upon such families for support of various specific projects in the school; some of them contributed a total of $50,000 for renovations that were completed during the past summer. Some contributed cash, others donated materials required for the designated repairs.

Youngsters in the school seemed to have a strong sense of camaraderie and a well-developed school spirit. All pupils and staff wore identification badges with personal photographs.

School facilities include three multimedia computer classrooms and two technology laboratories for robotics and other advanced courses.23 New fitness equipment had been purchased recently for physical education classes.

All pupils in the school, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, are enrolled in seven class periods of Jewish education each week. Four periods are in Hebrew language instruction, two are in Jewish history, and one is in Jewish tradition. Additional class time is designated for geography of Israel in the seventh and tenth grades. In addition to Jewish subjects, all pupils take four classes in English each week, as well as compulsory classes in basic technology and in computer skills. Youngsters may also choose two to three hours of technology electives each week in such areas as computer-aided design, computer art, web design, network operation, robotics, or advanced desktop publishing. In response to a comment by the writer that the English-language skills of youngsters with whom she spoke during a tour of the school seemed much more advanced than their Hebrew-language skills, Mr. Leshiner said that that the Hebrew teachers sent to ORT by the Ministry of Education in Israel lacked appropriate qualifications for their positions.24

In answer to a question, Mr. Leshiner said that very few pupils participate in the Na’aleh (high school in Israel) program. They prefer to complete secondary studies in Moscow. However, ORT encourages youngsters to enroll in the Selah (pre-college ulpan and university studies in Israel) program, and many do so. The level of aliyah, he noted, depends on the economy in Russia and the perceptions of families about the type of economic opportunity available to their child if he or she remains in Moscow. For many families, a decision to emigrate to Israel and the actual act of aliyah are separated by some years as the family prepares to leave Russia and begin new lives in Israel. It is during this period of preparation, he continues, that some families decide to transfer their children into the ORT school so that they can learn Hebrew and various advanced technologies that may be useful in Israel.

Academic Judaica

6. SEFER, the Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization,25 dates from 1994. It was established by the International Center for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization (Jerusalem), with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Sefer promotes Jewish studies at the university level and represents faculty, students, and institutions engaged in Jewish studies. Its current membership includes more than 450 scholars and approximately 100 institutions throughout Russia and the other successor states.

Sefer organizes an annual national Jewish studies conference as well as regional and student conferences, seminars, workshops, and tutorial sessions. It sponsors and coordinates visits of foreign scholars, and arranges for lecturers to speak in peripheral communities. It has published directories of Judaic programs in the transition states, research bibliographies, anthologies of academic writings, and curricula for use in teaching various Judaic courses. It is building a Judaica library at the Sefer center in Moscow. Sefer is dependent upon JDC for funding.

The writer met with Rashid Kaplanov, Chairman of the Sefer Board of Directors, and Victoria Mochalova, its Executive Director, in the Sefer office in the Russian Academy of Sciences. As Dr. Kaplanov had done in an meeting with the author one year previously, he and Dr. Dr. Mochalova reviewed the status of Judaic studies in a number of different institutions. (More detailed information about some of these institutions appears below.)

The relationship between Hebrew University (Jerusalem), Moscow State University, and the Jewish University in Moscow is beginning to achieve its goals, they said. Many Russian-speaking Israeli scholars are coming to Moscow to teach semester-length courses in their specialties. In general, they are excellent instructors.26 The Jewish University in Moscow itself continues to do well. (See below.)

Although its original purpose was to prepare archival researchers, Project Judaica graduates are not working in Jewish archives. Archival management is not prepared to expand its staff, and existing positions do not pay well. Some graduates of the program are working as translators for different organizations or in various capacities for JDC. A few are teaching Hebrew at Christian seminaries. Some of the better students are continuing their studies abroad.

Two other Moscow institutions, Maimonides Academy and Touro College, continue their work as before. The World Union for Progressive Judaism has relocated its Institute for Modern Jewish Studies from Kyiv to Moscow;27 it is engaging several Moscow Judaic studies specialists as part-time instructors.

Two of the four St. Petersburg institutions offering Jewish studies are encountering significant difficulties; the central curriculum of the Jewish University in St. Petersburg is weak and the new European University, which is staffed by very young and untested scholars, has serious economic problems. A Holocaust research group and a Jewish publishing venture appear to be continuing their work.

The demand for Jewish studies programs at state universities across Russia is increasing. Among those institutions to have contacted Sefer in search of faculty are the University of the Far East in Vladivostok, the University of Kazan, and a university in Arzamas-16.28 These institutions appear to assume that Sefer has the financial capacity to initiate and support Judaic studies programs in various parts of Russia without cost to the host institutions, a supposition without any basis in fact.

20. The writer has been acquainted with both individuals for some years. Mr. Singer, a native of Ukraine, previously was Deputy Head of the Liaison Bureau (Lishkat Hakesher, later Nativ) in the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel.
21. Mr. Lerner’s most recent previous position was Minister Plenipotentiary of the Embassy of Israel, representing Nativ, in Moscow. The writer met with him in that capacity in October 1998.
22. Under provisions of the Israel Law of Return, the State of Israel permits immigration of all individuals with one (or more) Jewish grandparents or with a Jewish spouse. The Jewish religious standard of halakha is much stricter, requiring that an individual’s mother is Jewish.
23. The Jewish Agency for Israel uses the three computer classrooms on Sundays for its professional ulpans, i.e., Hebrew classes for prospective immigrants in which students also are taught computer skills appropriate to their professions.
24. Some experienced teachers of Hebrew believe that the Hebrew curriculum used by the Ministry in the successor states is inherently flawed as a program for the Diaspora. A different approach is needed, they say, for circumstances in which a child hears the Hebrew language only during a single class period each day.
25SEFER is the Hebrew word for book. The full title in Russian of SEFER is Центр научных работников и преподавателей иудаики в ВУЗах "Сэфэр", which translates most accurately as Center for Scientific Workers and Instructors of Judaica in Institutions of Higher Education [associated with] Sefer.
26.  See the author’s A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow, October 20-29, 1998, pp. 15-16, for details about this agreement.
27. See pp. 46-48.
28. Arzamas-16 is a formerly closed populaton center developed by the Soviet Union as a base for classified research in several scientific disciplines. It is adjacent to the larger city of Arzamas, a railroad junction between Moscow and Kazan.

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