Across the vast expanse of Eastern Europe where Judaism once flourished – in Ukraine and Lithuania – and even in far-off Kazan, the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, World ORT schools are leading efforts to combat assimilation and revitalize Jewish education.
How? By crafting attractive educational solutions that combine science and technology with strong Jewish studies that allow both children and their parents to reengage in the traditions of their faith.
“World ORT saved us,” says Rabbi Mordechai Levenharts, principal of Kiev’s Jewish State Educational Complex “ORT Simcha.”
“The number of students in our school was declining and the fact that we taught Hebrew and offered kosher food was not enough. We had to raise the level of the school. World ORT provided computers, increased staff, trained teachers and helped refurbish the school buildings. They support us with technology, teachers and equipment. It is much easier now to convince students to attend our school.”
The school has 350 students, from kindergarten through 11th grade and utilizes the Heftzibah curriculum for Hebrew language, Jewish heritage and history, which is supervised by the Israeli Ministry of Education. The Heftzibah curriculum is used extensively in schools in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and utilizes both formal and informal methods to teach Hebrew and Jewish traditions. Students spend seven hours each week studying Hebrew language, Jewish traditions and Jewish history.
The vast majority of the students attend, based on the marketing and promotion that the school spearheads. The window of opportunity for locating and identifying Jewish students in Kiev will soon be closing. During the Soviet period, the authorities listed children’s nationalities on the birth certificate. Through the birth certificates of their grandparents, who are listed as Jewish, the school can trace their grandchildren. Once this generation has passed, it will be difficult to find Jewish students. Moreover, each year, as many as 15 families from the school move to Israel.
VILNIUS (VILNA) is the capital of Lithuania and its largest city, with a population of approximately 575,000. Known before World War II as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” with a Jewish population of 100,000, more than one hundred synagogues and six daily Jewish newspapers, the Jews of Vilnius today number just 6,500. Ruth Reches, a Hebrew teacher and psychologist at the Vilnius Sholom Aleichem ORT Gymnasium since 1997, was born in Vilnius and graduated from Bar Ilan University in Israel with a degree in sociology, psychology and criminology. In 2001, she received her MA in clinical psychology at Vilnius University and in 2007 she received teaching certification from Vilnius Pedagogical University.
Reches explains that the school utilizes the Tal Am system to teach values, traditions and the Hebrew language. “Children enjoy studying Hebrew with Tal Am because through songs, drawings and dancing, they can find a way to motivate themselves. For older students, studying by computer helps their motivation.”
Reches explains how the Jewish background that the students received at World ORT has changed the community.
“When I come to the synagogue on the Jewish holidays, I see many of my former students in attendance. They come with their families and their children already come to our school. We have a new generation.”
Reches notes that many parents of the children who attend the school learn about Judaism through their children.
“The children come home and explain to their parents about the holidays – what to eat, what to pray. This is how the parents learn.”
A World ORT Technology Center was installed at the Shalom Aleichem school in 2002. In more recent years, World ORT has provided interactive whiteboards for the school and computer labs for science teaching.
“World ORT supplied and equipped computer technology classes that allow the study of exact sciences. In addition, World ORT organized different seminars for teachers, as well as activities for children.” Students at the school participate in the World Bible Contest held in Israel and participate in special school Shabbat programs. The school has also organized a project of connecting sixth-grade students with Israeli schoolchildren via Skype.
KAZAN, LOCATED on the banks of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in southwest Russia, is the largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan. With a population of 1.2 million, it is the sixth most populous city in Russia. The World ORT “Mishpahteinu” Secondary School in Kazan has 657 students aged 7 to 18 and specializes in two advanced tracks of study supported by World ORT – Jewish education and technology education. Both tracks use modern computer technology, interdisciplinary study and project-based learning. Olga Trupp, principal of the school since its inception, explains that all classes include Hebrew language instruction; the history and geography of Israel; and Jewish traditions.
“All of the holidays are celebrated at school,” explains Trupp, “Kabbalat Shabbat, Purim, Hanukkah and Passover. They start with Rosh Hashanah in September and continue with all of the holidays throughout the year.”
Trupp says the school conducts a three-day seminar before the beginning of the school year for incoming first grade students, where together with their parents and siblings, they introduce them to Jewish traditions. Apart from the considerable skills that they will learn, “the main achievement of our school,” notes Trupp, “is that the students are not afraid of saying, ‘I’m a Jew.’”
“Everything that is going on in our schools is thanks to World ORT. If not for World ORT, the life of our school – and our community – would be quite different. World ORT is something very important.”
Avi Ganon, World ORT director general and CEO, said, “World ORT is as relevant today as it was 140 years ago and the mission statement of the organization has never changed. I spent 10 years in Russia, in big and small cities and I saw how Jewish life was returning to the communities thanks to World ORT. Yes, there are a lot of organizations dealing with Jewish traditions, but no one is dealing with Jewish education while providing the best tools for the students to be self-sufficient in their lives. World ORT is providing Jewish values and professional values.”
From Kiev to Kazan, World ORT’s educational efforts in science and technology – as well as in Jewish tradition – are helping to place the future in the hands of the next generation while ensuring Jewish continuity.
This article was written in collaboration with World ORT.