Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow

November 24 to December 4, 1997

Etz Chaim is associated with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. The writer met at the school with: Vladimir Sklyanoy, Principal; Marina Grushevskaya, Principal of Jewish Subjects; and Judith Schwartz, Head of the English Department. (Mrs. Schwartz is an aunt of Rabbi Goldschmidt.) A later discussion was held with Dara Goldschmidt, Rabbi Goldschmidt's wife, who has a prominent role in the school.

All Etz Chaim pupils are Jewish according to halakha. About 60 percent are of Sephardic Jewish background. Most Sephardic families are endogamous, relatively stable, and more traditional; many observe some degree of kashrut. However, many also are of lower economic status. About half of the Ashkenazi pupils are from single-parent homes, almost all of which are headed by women; perhaps 25 percent of the absent fathers are non-Jewish. Grandparents of children, i.e., parents of the child's mother, play an important support role in many families.

According to those interviewed, the major attractions of the school to families are pupil safety, a strong moral environment, hot meals, and a comprehensive, high-quality secular studies program. Referring to one aspect of the secular program, it was noted that Etz Chaim offers an excellent English-language curriculum, whereas very few public schools now teach any foreign languages [because qualified foreign-language teachers have left teaching for more lucrative positions in private industry].

Classes are coeducational in pre-school and the first two grades. From grade three, boys and girls meet in separate sections. Pupils are scheduled for up to 16 classes in Jewish studies each week, depending on age level. Three to four classes are in Hebrew language instruction, and the remainder are in various texts. Etz Chaim places much more emphasis on religious studies than on Jewish history. To accommodate state-mandated secular subjects as well as a religious curriculum, some pupils are in school until 5:45 p.m. Some grades have met on Sundays as well, but the Sunday classes are being terminated because children need more free time. The school devotes considerable effort to tutoring new pupils, who require extra instruction in Jewish subjects.

In common with Beit Yehudith, Etz Chaim has trained its own Jewish studies teachers, holding classes at night. However, such courses are not being offered during this academic year because teachers do not have time after work to take enrichment classes or to teach prospective new teachers. Mrs. Goldschmidt said that the school has obtained funding to hire teachers from abroad to teach more advanced Judaic topics, but she cannot find qualified individuals who are willing to live in Moscow. She is concerned about finding suitable Jewish studies teachers for the upper grades as Etz Chaim prepares to offer grades ten and eleven to its current ninth graders.

The central aim of the school is to build Jewish identity and Jewish pride. Many Moscow Jews deny their heritage and are self-hating. Although the school has not yet graduated any students, Mrs. Goldschmidt said that she hoped future graduates would learn at least one year in an Israeli yeshiva. About 20 pupils emigrate every year, some going to Israel and some settling with their families in other countries. The number of emigrating pupils used to be greater, but many families now perceive new possibilities for productive lives in Moscow.

Etz Chaim operates its own summer camp outside Moscow. Separate three-week sessions for boys and girls attract 180 to 220 youngsters each, most from the school.

As noted in an earlier section on the Jewish population of Moscow, Rabbi Goldschmidt intends to open a separate school for children of Mountain Jews who have resettled in Moscow in recent years. It is unlikely that they would do well at Etz Chaim because their academic backgrounds are weak.

10. Moscow National Jewish School is also known as School #1311 and "the Lipman school". The last title refers to Grigory Lipman, the school principal. Enrolling 280 youngsters in grades one through eleven, the school is sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education under its Tsofia program.8 Most pupils commute to school by public transportation; a school bus operates a shuttle service between the school and the nearest Metro station.

The Lipman school is considered by many in the Moscow expatriate Jewish community to be the showplace Jewish day school. A large display case in-cludes pictures of some of its more famous visitors (including the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) and trophies of various academic competitions in which it has participated. The building is exceptionally bright and cheery; many of its walls are decorated with artwork by pupils.

The secular education curriculum has an excellent reputation. Special pride was expressed about its English and Russian literature departments as well as its computer instruction.9 Its Judaic studies program is more limited, aiming to teach youngsters about Judaism rather than the substance of Judaism. Pupils study three to four hours of Hebrew each week, one to two hours of Jewish tradition, and, beginning in fifth grade, one hour of Jewish history weekly. Some boys wear kipot and the school kitchen is kosher.

The Lipman school offers an exceptionally strong extra-curricular program, including a school newspaper, music, drama, and sports. Pupils participate in various service activities, such as friendly visits with Jewish elderly in their apartments. The school also offers several programs for parents.

Classes are coeducational and are limited in size to 25 pupils, somewhat larger than in most other Moscow Jewish day schools. Two sections are taught in some grades, and a waiting list exists for enrollment at some age levels. A school official estimated that the school can accommodate only about 20 more youngsters than its current registration, a gap that will be filled as more numerous children in the lower grades move into the secondary school division. The appeal of the school to parents, said the official, is in its friendly atmosphere, high level of secular instruction, and free tuition [as opposed to many other high-quality schools in Moscow that are private and require substantial fees]. Some parents also want their children to learn Hebrew so that they will be better prepared to live in Israel should they decide to do so. About 90 percent of graduates enroll in competitive Moscow universities and institutes, and the remainder enter quality post-secondary programs in Israel or the United States.

11. World ORT Union operates four day schools in the post-Soviet successor states -- in St. Petersburg (generally considered the flagship school) and Moscow in Russia, and in Kyiv and Odessa in Ukraine.10 The Moscow ORT Secondary School (School #326), which was established in 1995, currently enrolls 300 youngsters in grades five through eleven. About 80 percent of the pupils are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return (but not necessarily according to halakha). All youngsters study four hours of Hebrew each week as well as one to three hours of Jewish history or tradition.

The school premises are modern and bright, and rooms are well-furnished. Computer equipment is extensive and up-to-date.

The school offers an intensive program in computer technology, including multimedia applications and instruction in basic robotics. The school curriculum includes all standard academic subjects, including English. Planners of the Moscow ORT program had hoped that a large proportion of graduates would enter the Moscow ORT Technical College (see below), but almost all who remain in Moscow prefer to continue their education in more prestigious institutes or universities. About five graduates of the first graduating class emigrated to Israel.

12. The ORT Technological College is a separate institution enrolling young people age 15 and older. Its current student body numbers 550, only 20 of whom are male and (apparently) none of whom is Jewish. The college is located in the Ostankino area of Moscow and was previously operated as a training institute by an adjacent clothing factory.

Reflecting its historic ties to the clothing industry, the largest department of the college is fashion design. The curriculum in this area is introducing modern methods of design and technology in an effort to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of Russian industry. A new department has been started in information systems; specialties are computer programming, data base development, telecommunications, and multimedia technologies. Computers and associated equipment in this department are plentiful and up-to-date. Another section of the college is concentrating on small-business development.

Officials at the college are aware of the Jewish roots of ORT and are frustrated by the inability of the college to establish a following among the local Jewish population. They recognize that Moscow Jews are oriented more toward full university and institute education than toward technical schools. The college maintains links with ORT schools in Israel and elsewhere, and posters and other mementos of Israel are visible in several sections of the building.

ORT computer specialists are trying to develop a consulting capacity to advise local Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions on purchase, installation, and use of computer systems. Among their clients for such services are the Jewish Agency in Moscow and the writer of this report on behalf of the Jewish day school in Dnipropetrovsk.

Academic Judaica

Academic study of Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish literature, Jewish demography and sociology, biblical and modern Hebrew, Jewish art and music, Zionism, modern Israel, the Holocaust, and related topics was banned during most of the Soviet era. As the policy and practice of glasnost appeared to take root in the late 1980s, various scholars turned their academic talents to Jewish dimensions of their core disciplines, e.g., general historians began to explore Jewish history, sociologists became interested in sociology of Russian Jewry, etc.

8. Tsofia is an acronym for "Zionism and Jewish Pedagogy" in Hebrew. About half of the 33 Tsofia schools were started by the Israeli government under its Maavar program and are secular in orientation. The other half are Chabad schools affiliated with the Chabad Or Avner organization.

Because Mr. Lipman was out of town on a business trip during my visit, the major source of information for this report is Zhanna Karnaukova, the deputy principal of the school. Ms. Karnaukova appeared uncomfortable when questioned about certain policy issues. One such question concerned the Jewish background of pupils; typically, Maavar schools accept youngsters who are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, many of whom may not be Jewish according to halakha.

9. The school possesses 14 Pentium 200 computers, all with independent hard drives and CD-ROM drives, and associated equipment.
10. The Moscow and St. Petersburg ORT schools are new institutions. The ORT school in Kyiv represents an ORT affiliation with an existing public school specializing in mathematics, and the ORT school in Odessa is a joint venture with an existing Maavar/Tsofia (Israeli government) school. The two schools in Russia enroll only youngsters in the middle and upper grades, whereas the schools in Ukraine enroll pupils in grades one through eleven.

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