In FSU, Chabad Schools Educate Students in Living Jewishly


In FSU, Chabad Schools Educate Students in Living Jewishly

At the Chabad Ohr Avner School in Zhitomir, Ukraine

by Miriam Davids - Zhitomir, Ukraine

February 20, 2009

(lubavitch) Zhitomir, Ukraine--Their grandparents were forced to hide their Jewish identity, and their parents didn't know details of an identity to hide. But increasingly, students at Chabad Schools in the Former Soviet Union are wearing theirs like their western counterparts: proudly.

A kosher fair set up by students in the classrooms of  the Chabad Ohr Avner Day School in Zhitomir, drew the curiosity of some 500 adults earlier this week, as they sampled kosher food products selected by the students, followed informative kashrut exhibits prepared by the students, participated in challah baking and had the opportunity to purchase kosher products in a makeshift supermarket that featured traditional Jewish foods.

"The Jewish population (7000) is big enough to support a kosher store and this festival, besides teaching the students, helps raise interest and awareness in the city," said Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, Chabad representative to Zhitomir, one of the oldest cities Eastern Europe with a history of a once-substantial Jewish population..

The McKosher classroom, resembling a kosher version of the McDonalds restaurant, introduced festival goers to the intricacies of Jewish law at work in the kitchen. A display of live fish helped visitors identify kosher species by looking for the telltale signs of fins and scales.

Attracting visitors until ten o'clock at night, the kosher fair is an example of school activities developed to help students become fully comfortable with Jewish life, explain principal, Chana Stepanskaya, and Jewish studies director Ahuva Lichtshtein.

Having gained the trust of parents who have come to appreciate the benefits of a Jewish education for their children, Chabad schools in the region are working ever more creatively to help them integrate their Jewish identity in all areas of their lives, as is the norm for students in American and western Jewish day schools.

In Omsk, Western Siberia, students at the Ohr Avner Day School swelled with pride following a recent first: the publication of the premiere edition of their student newspaper. Named "Driedel," the newspaper's mission, students explain, is to explore Jewish thematic issues of faith, education, children and the home, with its first issue including, among other features, articles about Jewish traditions and Jewish genealogy.

At the Levi Yitzchak School in Dnepropetrovsk, the student body of 450 recently celebrated the donation of a Torah scroll for use during weekday and holiday prayer in which the entire school takes part.

Student activities are designed to engage children in actually living Judaism, familiarizing them with observances and rituals, and helping them become involved in community outreach, weekly Friday visits to the residents of a Jewish home for the elderly.

School principal Rabbi Meir Ostrovsky told Lubavitch.com that the school offers several tracks allowing students a lot to choose from in developing their Jewish studies curriculum, while ensuring that even their secular studies take place in a Jewish environment."Judaism needs to be lived. It's not enough to just talk about it in the classroom; they have to experience it as well."

Toward that end, the schools involve families in extracurricular events. At a recent Shabbaton, a 70 year old grandfather was called up to participate in the reading of the Torah for the first time, prompting him to become a regular at the daily prayer services in the Chabad synagogue.

"We're seeing a new generation of Jews here that want more Judaism for their kids even though they are not so observant," says Ostrovsky. "It's part of the overall positive Jewish impact Chabad has had on the city."

Typically, the Ohr Avner schools rank high in mathematics, physics and English subjects. Zhitomir's Ohr Avner school recently garnered an award for excellent student test scores, placing it among the top schools in the country. The Levi Yitzchok School ranks in the top 10 out of the city's 150 schools.

"Today, parents are genuinely interested in their children attending Jewish school, and the solid secular program makes our school a popular choice," says Wilhelm. "We also work hard to provide small classes, warmth and connection between teacher and student and a joyful Jewish environment."

"The question for parents today," says Wilhelm, "is no longer 'why send my child?' but rather 'why not?'"

Zalman Nelson reported for this story.

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