Betsy Gidwitx Reports
A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow
October 20-29, 1998
It is too early to predict the impact of the economic situation on emigration, said Mr. Kuravsky. Historically, most students remain in Moscow after graduation and attend local post-secondary institutions in the Russian capital. [3]

Pupils in the school have up to ten hours of instruction in Jewish subjects each week, said Mr. Kuravsky. About half of these class periods concentrate on the Hebrew language and the other half include Jewish tradition, Jewish history, and Jewish culture. The Israeli Ministry of Education finances one position for an Israeli Chabad teacher at the school; the other teaching slots in Judaic courses are filled by local people. The school encourages pupils to participate in daily prayers, but cannot force children to do so because of its status as a public school.

Having toured the school and visited several classrooms in 1997, the writer did not spend much time at Achey Tmimim in 1998. Principals at two other day schools visited by the writer in 1998 mentioned, without being asked, that several pupils from Achey Tmimim had transferred into their schools at the beginning of the 1998-1999 school year, their parents citing deficient standards of secular education at Achey Tmimim.

3. Beit Yehudith (School #1330) was started in 1990 by Rivka Weiss, who sought a Jewish day school education for her own daughter. Mrs. Weiss, who is of Belgian and Israeli background, lives in Moscow with her husband, Rabbi David Weiss, a rabbi who is employed by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve a number of Jewish population concentrations in the Ural Mountain area.

The school enrolls 170 students in grades one through eleven, an increase from 152 in the previous academic year. Fifteen new youngsters are enrolled in classes beyond first grade, including boarding students from such cities as Sochi, Tashkent, and Almaty. In past years, said Mrs. Weiss, the main attractions (привлекательность) of the school to families were: (1) its strong secular studies program, especially in Russian and English; (2) its computer education program; and (3) its warm atmosphere. Interviews with families of new students this year, she said, showed that these factors are still very important, but parents now are especially eager that their children learn Hebrew. The economic crisis has led many families to consider emigration to Israel and they would like to prepare their children for such a move. Reflecting the increased interest in aliyah, the school has intensified its “parents’ university” (родительский университет) program of adult education in Jewish tradition, law, history, and holidays.

Originally a girls’ school, Beit Yehudit began to enroll a few boys (usually brothers of girls at the school) in 1997-98, and now enrolls a total of nine boys. Seven are in the lower grades of regular classes, and two are in a special education class. Mrs. Weiss said that space limitations deterred expansion of the special education program.

The school obtained a school bus during the past year that transports local pupils to/from a Metro station, thus permitting more Moscow-area pupils to live at home. Accordingly, the amount of space within the school that had been devoted to dormitory accommodations has been reduced and made available for classroom purposes. (In addition to providing boarding facilities within the school, Beit Yehudit arranges accommodations for older girls in supervised apartments, and three younger girls live with Mrs. Weiss and her family.)

Mrs. Weiss has received funding from a foreign donor to buy a nursery school building, which is located some 20 minutes from Beit Yehudit, that could be remodeled into a dormitory facility to accommodate all girls requiring such housing. The building could also provide space for a synagogue and for a dental clinic; the clinic has been promised to them by World Jewish Relief, a British organization similar to the Joint Distribution Committee. [4] However, negotiations to complete the sale of this facility to Beit Yehudit are stymied because the factory that owns the nursery school is refusing to lower the price to an appropriate post-August 17 level. [5]

Neither the current Beit Yehudit school building (also a former nursery school) nor the proposed additional nursery school building has a gymnasium. In order to satisfy municipal school regulations concerning physical education classes, Beit Yehudit transports its students to a rented gymnasium (sports hall) at a nearby public school for classes in the late afternoon. The public school is pleased with the arrangement because the rental fees provide otherwise unavailable income.

Mrs. Weiss said that most school pupils are from lower- and middle-class families, including many single-parent families. The school provides clothing for both children and adults, usually second-hand garments donated by friends in Europe and America. If families can afford it, the school charges the equivalent of one dollar for each item. A foreign sponsor underwrites a program in which the school sells kosher food at a substantial discount. The school does enroll pupils from a few wealthy families, all of them migrants to Moscow from the Caucasus mountain area.

The Judaic studies program at the school includes 15 class hours per week. Five hours are In Hebrew language study, and ten are in Chumash, tradition, and Jewish history. Jewish themes also are incorporated into lessons in music, dance, and art.

Almost all graduates of the school have enrolled in various Israeli institutions, including universities. A few girls have gone to Europe or the United States.

In response to a question about the impact of the economic crisis on the school, Mrs. Weiss indicated four factors. First, antisemitism has increased markedly, expressed in slogans on buildings (including the building in which Mrs. Weiss lives) and hostile remarks to children. People are angry and hungry, said Mrs. Weiss, and are searching for scapegoats. Second, inflation consumes wages. In order to retain teachers and accord them dignity, she pays teacher salaries that are twice the going rate. Third, all school expenses, such as food and electricity, are much higher than last year. Fourth, service personnel, such as repair specialists, are demanding payment in dollars. Because almost all school income is in dollar-denominated donations from the West, Beit Yehudit is able to meet current obligations, but the burden on the average family is extraordinary. The crisis, said Mrs. Weiss, has led to a great deal of uncertainty in peoples’ lives. It has generated increased enrollment in Beit Yehudit, greater interest in learning Hebrew, and more aliyah. Therefore, she said, the crisis has positive aspects. She does not believe that Jews have any future in Russia. Russia has always been a bad place for the Jewish people.

4. Etz Chaim (School #1621) is a modern/centrist Orthodox day school enrolling 335 pupils in a program serving pre-school through tenth grade. An eleventh grade, the final class in most Soviet/post-Soviet schools, will be added in 1999-2000. Pre-school and early elementary school classes are offered in two different locations, and middle and high school classes are centralized in one building with boys and girls in separate classes. The school is associated with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow.

In response to a question, Principal Vladimir Sklyannoy said that about three percent of pupils in the school are from wealthy families, about 30 percent from middle class families, 55 to 60 percent from poor families, and about ten percent from “extremely poor” families. Extremely poor families are almost always single-parent families; Etz Chaim assists these families in obtaining food, clothing, and other items.

Between 35 and 38 percent of pupils are from families that moved to Moscow from Georgia (Gruzia) and the Caucasus Mountain region since the fall of the Soviet regime.[6]  Many of these youngsters 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, 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 here 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 the 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.

At one time, Rabbi Goldschmidt had considered opening another day school for these youngsters that would address their specific needs. Ideally, the school would have been located near the Izmailovo market, where many of the parents work. A large number of adolescents drop out of school at an early age to assist their parents in the market. However, he has been unable to develop financial resources for such a school from organizations or from wealthy families whose children require the type of education that the school would offer. Mr. Sklyannoy said that Etz Chaim probably would initiate special classes in Russian-language instruction as a first step in assisting youngsters from this population group.

Dara Goldschmidt, wife of Rabbi Goldschmidt and an educator in the school, listed the major attractions (привлекательность) of the school to parents as follows: a high level of education in both general and Jewish studies; a particularly strong program in English; experienced teachers; ongoing improvements in the school curriculum and other aspects of school life; a warm atmosphere in the school, with individual attention to each pupil; and a long school day (until 5:00 p.m.) that permits parents to work without worrying about what their children do after school.
Academic standards at Etz Chaim are high in both secular and religious studies. The religious component includes three to five hours weekly in Hebrew language, four in Torah, one in Prophets, one to two in Jewish holidays, and two in Jewish history. Several pupils whose families objected to the intensity of the Jewish studies curriculum have transferred to the ORT day school, which places much less emphasis on religious instruction.

Although Etz Chaim has trained its own teachers of Judaic studies in the past, it does so now only on an individual basis because the Judaic studies staff has stabilized. It has made arrangements for teachers of Jewish subjects to enroll in a special Russian-language course of studies at Neve Yerushalaim, a women's yeshiva/teachers' seminary in Jerusalem, during summers. Etz Chaim pays the airfare and Neve Yerushalaim pays the room and board costs for participants.

3. In both the 1997 and 1998 visits to Achey Tmimim, the school appeared to be among the most strongly non-Zionist of any post-Soviet day school with which the writer is familiar.
4. World Jewish Relief, which works closely with the Joint Distribution Committee, sponsors a number of programs in the post-Soviet successor states, especially in Ukraine.
5. Prices of Moscow industrial, commercial, and institutional real estate plummeted after the ruble devaluation of August 17.
6. Many heads of families in these population groups are traders in Moscow-area street bazaars. A few have become wealthy in various forms of commerce, such as restaurant ownership; however, some of these businesses are very vulnerable to economic difficulties following the devaluation of the ruble in August 1998.

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