Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Jewish Education and Culture



24. Chabad operates two early childhood centers in the city, Ilana and Beit Tsindlicht.[48] The Ilana day center enrolls about 35 children between the ages of one and three in a daycare program. Beit Tsindlicht is a much larger endeavor, hosting 155 children between the ages of 2½ and six in a formal preschool program. Each center operates a daylong program, serving both a breakfast snack and a full lunch. The official tuition at each is 1,500 hryvnia (approximately U.S. $185) monthly, but many families pay a reduced fee of between 500 and 1,500 hryvnia, said director Yudit Baram.



About 90 percent of the enrolled children are halachically Jewish, stated Ms. Baram. The remainder have some Jewish heritage and all of their families maintain a substantial connection to the broader Jewish community. Although all age-appropriate children of the substantial number of Chabad emissaries in the city attend one of the two centers, many children from local Jewish families come from non-observant homes. The Chabad youngsters are taught separately in "Israeli" classes in which greater emphasis is placed on mastery of Hebrew.



Yudit Baram directs the Beit Tsindlicht preschool in Dnipro-petrovsk.


Photo: the writer.



In all, the 155 children at Beit Tsindlicht are assigned to one of six different sections based on age and level of Jewish background. Three certified teachers and one aide are assigned to each section, said Ms. Baram. Most teachers, Ms. Baram stated, are local women, some of whom trained at Beit Chana.[49]


In addition to Jewish-content programs, Beit Tsindlicht follows the standard secular curriculum designed for Ukrainian preschoolers. Kindergarten classes use government-issued workbooks in language and arithmetic. A strong majority of youngsters, perhaps as many as 90 percent, said Ms. Baram, enter first grade at the Chabad day school, yeshiva katana, or machon. The remaining ten percent enroll in local secular schools.


Although the approved enrollment capacity of Beit Tsindlicht is 150 youngsters, it operated with 155 pupils during the 2012-2013 school year. Additional children were on a waiting list. Ms. Baram averred that the school is overcrowded, but she was not optimistic that more space would be secured in the near future. A proposed small addition to the existing facility is opposed by the Pinchuk/Tsindlicht family because it would reduce the amount of open land surrounding the current facility. A plan to open a preschool on the other (eastern) side of the Dnipr River in premises already controlled by Chabad collapsed when Chabad declined to pay bribes demanded by the relevant city licensing authority. Ms. Baram and others believe that a market exists for several additional Chabad preschools, each in a different area of the city.



25. School #144, which bears the formal name of Levi Yitzhak Schneerson Ohr Avner Jewish Day School, occupies a three-building campus that served as a boarding school during the Soviet period. The main building houses 263 youngsters in grades one through eleven in a general curriculum with a modest Jewish studies program. (See below.) Another 172 pupils are enrolled in more intensive Chabad religious programs, i.e., 92 boys in a yeshiva katana (junior yeshiva) and 80 girls in a machon, each in its own separate building. (See below.)


In response to the writer's first, informal question, "Как дела?" (How are things, how is everything?), Principal Mikhail Gugel responded (in Russian) that things could be better, that current times are very difficult. Enrollment in the regular school has declined substantially in recent years. At its peak census in the late 1990’s, the school enrolled close to 700 youngsters, most in the general program. At that time, it was the largest Jewish day school in all of the post-Soviet states and one of the largest in all of Europe.


Registration in 2011-2012 was only 315; the decline to 263 during the current (2012-2013) academic year represents a further 17 percent loss. In offering a partial explanation for the enrollment loss, Mr. Gugel said that some families had emigrated and that some Israelis in the city had returned to Israel. Further, he said, some high school youngsters had left the school to enroll in Na'aleh, the Jewish Agency high school in Israel program. The Jewish population in general is declining (as is the broader Ukrainian population), and some local Jewish families object to the religious studies program in the school (three classes weekly in Jewish tradition and three classes weekly in Hebrew language). However, Mr. Gugel did not address the perception in the city that the general studies program of School #144 is inferior to that in the better public schools and several private schools in the city.



Mikhail Gugel, principal of School #144, will complete his tenure at the school at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.



Photo: the writer.



In a later discussion with Zelig Brez, Executive Director (Исполнительный директор) of the Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community (Благо-творительный фонд Днепропетровского еврейского общины), which supports Chabad interests in the city, Mr. Brez said that Chabad professional and lay leadership is aware of problems in the school and has begun to address them. The first step of the Philanthropic Fund, stated Mr. Brez, was to commission an external, unbiased evaluation of the school. The evaluation showed that School #144 is perceived in the city as "a ghetto, a shelter, and a sanitarium." It has managed to avoid the physical ills of urban education, that is, it has no drugs or violence issues. However, independent academic achievement tests show poor results in every subject area. Teachers routinely give higher grades than are merited by actual pupil attainment. The school census shows an unusually high proportion of under-privileged children[50] and a corresponding dearth of youngsters from middle class families.


The main building of School 144 is seen at left. The girls’ machon is behind this building and the boys’ yeshiva katana is to the left of the pictured building.

Photo: Chabad of Dnipropetrovsk.


The independent study evaluated the atmosphere in the school as oppressive and stultifying in terms of encouraging teacher creativity and academic excellence.[51] Further, the observance of both state and religious holidays reduces teaching time and degrades educational continuity.[52]


Mr. Brez continued that the current school administration would be replaced with new, proven professionals.[53] In common with schools of excellence in the city, teacher bonuses would now be based on examination results of their pupils.[54] New emphasis is being placed on contemporary science, including information technology and electronics. The dilapidated large tour buses used to transport pupils to and from school already have been replaced with newer, smaller, and quicker buses and vans, thus reducing the average commute time of pupils from 55 minutes to 30 minutes. Further, the newer vehicles are equipped with video systems that stream educational films from the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Society while children are traveling between their homes and school. Mr. Brez and others are continuing to seek the advice of independent consultants and to secure financial support from organizations and foundations familiar with education in Ukraine.[55]


As a public school, School #144 cannot charge tuition. However, funds have been solicited from parents during the last year for the purchase of computers, projectors, and other equipment. Parents also paid for the repair of the school heating system, said Mr. Gugel. Almost all parents made some financial contribution to the school, Mr. Gugel stated, but the amount varies significantly among them.


Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish federation in Boston (Dnipropetrovsk's sister city) has reduced its financial support to the school over the last several years, said Mr. Gugel. However, it still provides a grant for the purchase of school cafeteria food and sponsors a joint winter camp in the Dnipropetrovsk area for School #144 pupils and Boston Jewish teens. Boston also provides English-language books for the school library and has brought English-language teachers to Boston for intensive training in English teaching.


Answering a question, Mr. Gugel said that almost all of the Israeli children - most from emigré families who had returned to Dnipropetrovsk - in the main school had gone back to Israel as the local economy soured. He estimated that 30 Israel children from Chabad families are enrolled in the machon or yeshiva.


[48] The Ilana program is named in memory of a former participant who died as a young child. Beit Tsindlicht is named in memory of the maternal grandparents of Viktor Pinchuk, a native of Dnipropetrovsk who now lives in Kyiv and is married to the daughter of Leonid Kuchma, a past President of Ukraine. Mr. Pinchuk, who provided the lead gift for development of the building, is an oligarch with major interests in iron and steel products, as well as other industries.

[49] See pages 59-60 for information about Beit Chana.

[50] Many poor or lower middle class Jewish families are attracted to Jewish day schools by such amenities as free meals and free bus transportation to and from school.

[51] Although Mr. Brez did not mention conflict among teachers, it was well known in the city that tension existed between older and younger teachers. Some of the older instructors were perceived as Soviet in their educational philosophy and teaching style, unable to adapt to post-Soviet reality.

[52] The government of Ukraine mandates a large number of holidays, some of which are holdovers from the Soviet period and have no significance in contemporary Ukrainian life.

[53] Mr. Gugel was aware of his impending dismissal at the time of the writer's meeting with him. He is the most recent of a series of principals since the school's inception who have had no relevant experience in school administration and management prior to their appointment.

[54] Teacher salaries in Ukraine are very low. Successful schools provide bonuses to the best teachers and/or teachers in positions that are difficult to fill, such as those in mathematics, science, information technology, and foreign languages.

[55] See pages 76-78 for the remainder of the interview with Mr. Brez.

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