By Stacey Dresner
While touring World ORT schools recently in Moscow, Suze Goldman was impressed with the level of education. But she was touched by the way Russia’s World ORT schools are bringing Jews back into the fold.
Goldman, the president of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and her husband, Marc, were in Russia in late October as part of a World ORT tour of its schools in Moscow.
The tour gave them a close-up look at World ORT, a non-profit organization that provides Jewish education and vocational training in more than 100 countries, with an eye toward creating self-sufficiency. But Goldman said it provides so much more.
“World ORT is all about education,” she said. “But it is really a reclamation and rebooting of Jewish life through education.”
Jim Lodge, senior development officer of World ORT, asked the Goldmans if they were interested in going on a trip to visit World ORT’s Russian schools several months ago. Goldman had gotten to know Lodge when Heritage Academy in Longmeadow became the first American Jewish day school to be selected for World ORT’s Kadima Mada program, which offers World ORT’s expertise in cutting edge educational techniques.
“When he asked if we wanted to go on this trip, I said, ‘Sounds good!’ I had wanted to go to Russia for a long time,” Suze said.
But before going to Russia, she took a detour.
Suze’s grandmother had grown up in Finland after her Lithuanian family had relocated there to escape the pogroms. So Suze and Marc spent the first five days of their trip touring Finland, where they met up with one of Suze’s college friends who lives there now and is involved in the local Jewish community. Suze described Finland’s Jewish community, which is solely Orthodox, as “struggling.”
The Goldmans then travelled by the Allegro Fast Train to St. Petersburg, Russia – a 3 ½ hour ride. They spent five days touring St. Petersburg with a guide.
“The guide was a woman of around 75 who had Jewish background, so she was really able to talk from that very typical Russian Jewish perspective of not really being involved in Jewish life but being Jewish – knowing she was Jewish.”
Goldman compared St. Petersburg to Paris – with its parks, grand boulevards and museums.
“We did a lot of the typical tourism stuff seeing the palaces and the cathedrals, but interspersed through that was this conversation about Jewish life. She took us around to buildings where there had been this Jewish organization or that Jewish organization, and most of that is gone now, but we were able to see that at some point [the Jewish community was there]. She also talked about anti-Semitism through the years…But she is one of the generation totally disconnected and as she said, her ‘granny’ would talk about it. Her grandmother kept that thread alive for her.”
One of the places the Goldmans wanted to visit was Congregation Sharei Shalom, a progressive synagogue. Founded in 2003 and led by Rabbi Elena Rubinstein, the first Russian-speaking woman ordained as a rabbi in Israel, Sharei Shalom is the first and only Reform congregation in St. Petersburg. It is underwritten by the Union of Progressive Judaism.
“The most interesting thing was our guide Marina knew nothing about Sharei Shalom. She was very savvy and smart but had no idea.”
The Goldmans, their guide and driver ended up going on a hunt for the Reform synagogue.
“With many wrong turns and inquiries we found the synagogue,” Suze recalled. “There is no outside sign, just a buzzer and no security. Probably reminiscent of refusnik times.”
After finding the synagogue, the Goldmans attended a Kabbalat Shabbat service there and spent time with about 35 members of the small congregation at the kiddush following.
As Goldman explains it, the scope of Progressive Judaism in Russia is very limited. Chabad is very active in Russia, and has a close relationship with the Russian government as well as World ORT. On their trip, the Goldmans had a “lovely meeting” with Chief Chabad Rabbi Beryl Lazer at Chabad Headquarters in Moscow. Chabad reportedly has a presence in more than 170 cities around Russia. But compared to Chabad, the Reform movement is very small.
After St. Petersburg, the Goldmans took the train to Moscow and met up with a small American group set to visit the World ORT schools for three intensive days.
“The schools were incredible. We went to two schools in Moscow, both outstanding. One of them was a large school, I think 700 children ranging from young kids to high school. What was very significant was that the financial situation in Russia is very challenging for people. People are working a lot, so these kids may be in school from mornings until 7:30 at night. They have been feeding them dinner, so it’s a really holistic approach.”
The Goldmans marveled at the school’s curriculum, particularly the STEM program – the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics studies that schools around the world now realize are critical for success in the global marketplace.
“It is astounding to see the little kids, first, second, third grades, doing robotics,” she said.
In the school, the students and teachers have created a whole Holocaust memorial in the basement. “They have created this whole installation about Russian communities, about the Holocaust, and it is very impressive. The teachers are incredibly impressive.”
All of the schools in Russia are public, including the World ORT schools. World ORT brings in additional funding, shlichim, Hebrew literacy curriculum and the STEM education to its schools.
“They provide a very high level of education all together. The schools are open to everyone,” Suze said. “In Russia education is highly coveted and desired. So people come to the schools, the non-Jewish for the quality of the education and actually a lot of people with possibly very marginal Jewish connection come for the level of educational achievement and then [learn about Judaism].”
One example is Yasna, 29, a young Russian woman who attended one of the Moscow World ORT schools and is now a nurse.
“She told us that her Dad was Jewish. When it was time for her to go to school, her mother found the ORT school. Her father said, ‘I don’t think so.’ He was afraid to be identified as Jewish because of all of the old [anti-Semitic] stuff. But the mom said this is the best school, this is where she is going. She loved it and along with getting a great education, she became involved Jewishly. She later went to Jewish camp and now is working with the Israeli embassy. It became reclamation for Yasna. She is an example of the thousands and thousands of kids there who come into the schools and get totally rebooted and reclaimed. They move on to professions and maintain themselves as Jewish.”
At the second smaller school, they met with Conrad Giles, the president of World ORT, and other World ORT representatives. Sitting in on a Hebrew class with very young students, they listened to the children calling out words in Hebrew. “It could have been Heritage or LGA,” Suze said.
While technology is also a huge part of the smaller, the arts are also important. The group saw students creating on digital sand animation canvases and making Lego chess sets and representations of Red Square.
On their last day in Russia, they returned to St. Petersburg to visit its ORT school.
She observed the students vocalizing with computers and working with robotics.
And at one point the students sang a Refusnik song and waved Israeli flags.
Without World ORT, Suze said, all of the World ORT students and graduates “wouldn’t have this Jewish connection – not at all.”
“What I want people to know is that ORT is really, through the vehicle of high quality education, reclaiming Russian Jewry.”