The Jewish life that once was so vibrant in Eastern Europe was long ago ravaged, if not destroyed — first by the Holocaust and then by communist regimes. The latter strictly forbade all religious practice, and even being culturally Jewish was considered socially detrimental and potentially life threatening.
Odessa, for one, had 70 synagogues in 1924; now there are two.
Acts of anti-Semitism continue throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU). Nazi literature often finds its way into Ukrainian open-air markets, and last year an Orthodox school in Kiev belonging to the Tseirei Chabad organization was set on fire. In September of 2009, the Jerusalem Post revealed the anti-Semitic remarks of a Ukrainian mayor, just one of many displays of open, vocal anti-Semitism among nationalist political figures.
In an interview, Ukrainian journalist Arcady Monastersky described his frustration with his government’s inaction in response to such offenses: “In a big movie theater, ‘Death to Kikes’ was written in the big glass window,” he said. “It was left up for two months.”
Undeterred, World ORT, the international nonprofit focused on Jewish education and training, is laying the groundwork for a revitalization of Jewish culture in the FSU. Best known for vocational training programs in the United States, ORT also operates in nine countries, serving 26,000 children in 35 towns. They operate 277 primary and secondary schools around the world, 17 of which are Jewish day schools in the FSU, schooling 8,000 students.
An additional 27 Jewish day schools are spread throughout the FSU, but those are all run by Or Avner and Shma Yisrael, requiring students be Jewish based on halachic law, with proven documentation that both their mother and grandmother were Jewish. Given the history of repression in the FSU, frustrated parents tell of having to prove and re-prove their children’s Judaism year after year.
Where the Money Goes
It costs World ORT $850 to educate, feed and transport one child in the former Soviet Union per year. The FSU branch of ORT urgently needs approximately $2.5 million immediately to pay for:
ORT schools don’t require such documentation; they accept children who are Jewish based on the Israeli Law of Return — broadening the scope to “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.”
“The chain of Jewish generations was interrupted in the FSU,” said David Benish, World ORT representative to the FSU. “We are doing this not to continue, but to create Jewish communities here, because they don’t exist.”
And so, in addition to teaching the official curriculum dictated by the ministry of education in the cities they serve, which is necessary in order to receive government funding, ORT schools offer extensive coursework in Jewish studies and traditions. Israeli teachers, shlichim, teach Hebrew and Israeli history, and the school provides for Masa Shorashim, educational tours in regions connected with the history of the Eastern European Diaspora. Whereas Ukrainian schools ignore coursework involving the Holocaust, ORT is reaching out to a new generation of Jews and teaching them about their lost history.
Dima Nemirovskiy, 9, who attends the ORT school in Odessa, lives with his mother and grandmother in a small apartment with a cracked ceiling and chipping walls. His mother and grandmother are both convalescents, but his mother has to work to support them. She earns just $200 a month, whereas the average family in Odessa spends between $700 and $800 monthly. The family budget is bare bones: They don’t eat meat, and they couldn’t afford new shoes after Dima’s were stolen in a hospital last year.
“The schools help,” grandmother Svetlana said. “They help with holidays. They even help us figure out how to pay for electricity.”
Svetlana remembers a day last summer when Dima was at the beach in Odessa. “He went up to an old man and said, ‘I am a Jew’ in Hebrew. The man was shocked and so happy when he heard.” The man responded that he was Jewish, too, but that this was something that he would never have said aloud.
“Today religion comes from school to home, and not from home to school,” Robert Singer, director general of World ORT, told a classroom of parents and teachers in the ORT Technology Centre in Odessa. “The system is upside down.”
“If we have a holiday in school, my grandparents ask me how to celebrate and I teach them,” an ORT Odessa student named Andrey said.
Many students don’t even know they are Jewish until they begin their education at ORT lyceums.
When twins Elena and Viktoria Praisman came to Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum, “we knew we were Jewish, but it meant nothing, and our parents kept it hidden from us,” Viktoria said. Instead of using their father’s obviously Jewish last name, the twins’ parents decided to have them go by their mother’s more ambiguous, “passable” maiden name, Danilenko.
“They didn’t want us to have discrimination in the future with having a Jewish name, which is very common here,” Viktoria continued. But in their third year of studying at ORT, “we decided that we wanted people to know we are Jewish, so we legally changed our family name to Praisman. We decided to do this because it felt necessary for us; it is a part of us, our roots.”
There are also challenges any Jewish school faces in attracting families. Not only do the schools tend to be less conveniently located than other public or advanced schooling options, the majority of Jewish adults in the FSU have difficulty coming to terms with their faith and religious traditions. As a result, many are hesitant to pass them on to their children.
Such is the case for Vitali Vozhiy, the parent of a child enrolled in ORT Technology Centre in Odessa. He insisted, “I am not Jewish, I am Ukrainian,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. When finally relenting that, yes, perhaps a small portion of him could technically be categorized as Jewish, he was nevertheless adamant: “It makes no difference. If a person is good, it doesn’t matter.”
Vozhiy said he sends his 12-year-old daughter to the Odessa school not for its ties to Judaism, but because the school is highly subsidized and acclaimed as the third best in the nation.
ORT has learned that to appeal to the greater population, its schools have to be among the highest performing in the area. Kishniev’s ORT School is regarded as the best in Moldova, and ORT schools routinely do well in national Olympiads in subjects ranging from English language to math, physics, robotics and other technological skills.
“We were selected one of the three best schools in Odessa — winners of all technology education in Ukraine and an award from the Academy of Science,” Anna Michurina, director of 11-year-old ORT Technology Centre in Odessa, said. “Jewish parents want the very best education for their children.”
ORT schools offer advanced curricula in information technology, teaching students programming, Web design and robotics from a young age. The Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum is equipped with SMART Boards and new computers that rival those in even the most advanced American prep schools. And the students know how to use them. One former student, Ievgen Vysokogliad of Kiev, went so far as to create a successful Web-design company in 2005, when he was only in the ninth grade.
Vladimir Voronin, former president of Moldova, expressed his appreciation for ORT’s endeavors in his country: “It is the opening of Moldova to the world with the implementation of new technology,” he said through an interpreter. “Technology gives a lot of perspective to the youth.”
Yet in the wake of the global economic crisis that began in 2008, the future of ORT schools in the FSU is uncertain.
ORT relies on a combination of local government funding for general education, school buildings and basic teacher salaries; Heftsiba, a collaboration between the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Israeli government; and ORT donors, primarily in the United States.
On Sept. 1, 2008, however, Heftsiba announced that JAFI could no longer support the FSU Jewish day schools, which meant more than $2 million in support suddenly disappeared, eliminating salaries for teachers of Jewish subjects, as well as money for transportation, meals and security. The timing couldn’t have been worse, given that Sept. 1 is also the first day of school in Ukraine. The day of the “first bell” is considered a national holiday, and parents take off work to watch their children dress in their finest attire, sing and present their teachers with overflowing bouquets of flowers in anticipation of the academic year to come.
One week after the transportation cuts, 15 percent of students stopped coming to school. Teachers also began to face financial obstacles both in terms of salary and cost of transportation. “Our teachers make only $200 to $250 a month, compared to private schools in the city, where they would be able to make $1,000,” said Yurly Kinkov, principal of Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum. A one-time donation of $1 million from the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews helped salvage that year’s programs.
Foreign donations are essential to World ORT, especially as the cultural norms within the post-communist FSU do not include philanthropy as an ingrained part of the culture, even among Jews.
“I don’t see why local businessmen have to finance an Israeli program,” Josef Zissels, chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, said.
A Jewish political insider who resides in Ukraine and asked not to be identified discussed the lack of giving from Jewish members of the community. When community members give, he said, approximately 90 percent of the money goes to local rabbis and synagogues, with little to no transparency in terms of allocation of donations.
“The oligarchs live however they desire, but they figure that, just in case there is a God, their contributions will buy them some protexia with the Almighty,” the insider said.
Two young men, Yash Udis, 30, and Ilan Shor, 22, however, have stepped up to help. This year, Udis, CEO of an agri-business in Odessa, has donated about $4,000 a month for school buses as well as supporting the schools in other endeavors.
And Shor, following in the footsteps of his late father, has become president of ORT Moldova, dedicating both time and money to the ORT schools there.
“For me it’s important to help all people,” he said. “If we can help we must. Education is life. Education is future.”
Singer praised these “two outstanding examples of giving,” adding that their level of giving is rare. “I have been here for 20 years and this never happens,” Singer said.
Yet despite the challenges, demand for ORT schools has not diminished. “So far the number of students at our school has not dropped as we had feared,” principal Kinkov said. “It has actually gone up slightly. That is because, despite all of the cuts, the ORT Lyceum continues to enjoy a reputation for academic excellence.”
Indeed, the Kishinev ORT Herzl Technology Lyceum is filled to capacity. Hallways become classrooms; corridors, lined with pictures of Jerusalem, become museums.
And despite some shortcomings, the community makes the best of the situation. Alexander Gangan sends three of his children to the Kishinev Lyceum. “They have no gym,” he said. “My son said to me, ‘We don’t need a gym, because we can play chess at the bench.’ It would be funny if it were not so sad.”
For more information on how to give to World ORT schools, visit ort.org and click on School crisis in CIS.