It may not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of a bustling home of Jewish education, but something very special is happening in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The start of Chanukah marked the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of ORT’s Pri Etz Chaim school in the city, where the small Jewish community numbers around 1,250 people.
The event on Sunday night (December 2) featured a concert for 700 people at a local theatre.
Bordering China to the east and Kazakhstan to the north, Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country more than 4,300km from ORT’s birthplace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and around 6,300km from the global education network’s current headquarters in London, UK.
The Bishkek school students, alumni and parents came up with the concept of the event, and its contents.
The whole school took part, with every student performing on the stage. There were also 30 graduates of the school taking part.
Vladimir Kritzman, Pri Etz Chaim principal, thanked the founders and all those who support its work. He was acknowledged with a silver badge of honour by Bishkek City Hall for his and the school’s efforts.
Among the guests were Chief Rabbi of Kyrgyzstan Arie Raichman; Ishenkul Boldzhurova, former vice-Prime Minister and former Minister of Education of Kyrgyzstan; a representative of Israel’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan; and representatives of the JDC and JAFI in the country.
Mr Kritzman said: “The school is one of the main community institutions in Kyrgyzstan, and therefore the birthday of the school was a great celebration for the entire community.
“We deliberately arranged this holiday on the first day of Chanukah, and for the whole community it turned out to be a special holiday.”
Pri Etz Chaim is a hub of Jewish life and values, and is regarded as one of the best schools in the capital city.
Founded by Orthodox Jews from Belgium, the school opened in 1993, and joined the ORT network in 2004. An ORT technology centre was installed two years later. It was the first school in Kyrgyzstan to adopt the NetSchool programme which provides integrated information and administration solutions.
It currently has around 88 students and more than 20 teachers. Pupils spend two to three hours a week on Hebrew studies, with drama performances staged in the language and Hebrew essay competitions taking place.
There are further classes on the traditions of the Jewish people, Jewish literature and Jewish cultural activities including song, dance and art.
Pri Etz Chaim is one of the most active schools in the network when it comes to joining in with international ORT projects. It has received a high number of awards and winning projects, including in last year’s Chanukah dreidel-making competition.
Avi Ganon, World ORT Director General and CEO, in a letter to Mr Kritzman to mark the anniversary, wrote: “Pri Etz Chaim has been an integral factor in the positive co-existence that has continued to develop between the city’s Muslim and Jewish communities over the past quarter-century.
“Since your establishment in 1993, and as part of the ORT network since 2004, you have built a strong reputation and the great respect of the city’s authorities.
“Your students achieve excellent results and participate in – and frequently win – international World ORT competitions.
“Just as importantly, you are providing a setting in which the Jewish community’s next generation is able to learn about Jewish heritage and culture in a secure and encouraging environment.
“Thanks to the hard work of you and your staff, you are helping to safeguard the future of Bishkek’s Jewish community. We are delighted to count you in our network and we wish you many more years of continued success.”
The security situation in Kyrgyzstan is challenging, but the current Jewish community is made up largely of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Ashkenazi Jews evacuated to the city during the Second World War. The community plays a vital role in the life of the city and hold many key positions in public life.