Ilya Pozhidayev, 13, immigrated to Israel several years ago with his parents from Lugansk, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine. However, about a year ago, employment problems forced his parents to send their only son back to Lugansk to be raised by his grandmother. The grandmother, who works for the local branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, registered Pozhidayev at the private Jewish school Or Avner, which is run by Chabad movement rabbis, emissaries of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.
Conditions at the school are much better than at Israeli state schools. There are between 10 and 12 children per class. The school day ends at 3 P.M. in the lower grades and at 5 P.M. in the upper grades. Schooling is free and parents are not required to pay fees for such extra expenditures as school books and class trips.
In a conversation with him last week at his school, Pozhidayev said that being an Israeli gave him an edge over local students. "When they teach Hebrew or about the State of Israel, then obviously I know better than everyone, almost as much as the teachers."
Besides the government school program, Or Avner pupils get six to eight hours a week of studies in Hebrew, Jewish tradition and geography of the Land of Israel. The State of Israel is felt almost everywhere in the school. At the entrance to the building stands an Israeli flag, and the hallways are adorned with pictures from Israeli life - soldiers praying at the Western Wall, coffee shops in Haifa and the Eilat beach.
So striking an Israeli presence is not a negligible matter in an ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist school network. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, forbade the government to give the Arabs any part of the Land of Israel, but was careful to refrain from showing sympathy for the state and recognizing its institutions. The president of the FJC CIS, tycoon Lev Leviev, speaks cautiously when asked about the role Israel plays in the curriculum. "We teach about the Land of Israel and love of Israel because we believe it is a central part of Jewish identity," Leviev said during a visit to the school in Lugansk last week.
Leviev, himself a Chabad disciple who received the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, founded the Or Avner network in 1995 to fight assimilation in states of the former Soviet Union. "The criteria for success from our standpoint is stopping assimilation," said Or Avner Director Rabbi David Mondshine. "We will be delighted if our graduates will be religiously observant, but even if that doesn't happen it will be alright, so long as they marry Jews."
There are 14,000 Or Avner students enrolled at some 100 schools across the former Soviet Union. According to Leviev, the fathers of over 90 percent of the pupils are not Jewish. The Zionist organizations operating in the CIS, the Jewish Agency and the Nativ liaison agency, previously viewed Or Avner as a rival element that was encouraging Jews not to move to Israel. Today, some Or Avner schools have Zionism teachers who are employed by the Jewish Agency and Israeli Education Ministry.
In recent years, hundreds of Or Avner students have come to Israel on annual organized trips. The ministry program, known by its Hebrew acronym Heftziba, takes the visiting students to Jewish holy sites, but also on jeep and kayaking trips, and even to experience Bedouin hospitality.
This past year, the Jewish Agency expanded its cooperation with Or Avner to other areas. JA Chair Ze'ev Bielski likes to say that as far as he's concerned, Or Avner is a Zionist entity.
Or Avner officials explain that familiarity with Israel is the best way to strengthen the students' Jewish identity. "In the students' eyes, the Israeli flag is the most Jewish thing there is," said Rabbi Pinchas Vyshedsky, FJC-Ukraine representative to the city of Donetsk. "We were very pleased with our students' visits to Israel. The visit worked miracles in terms of their interest in Judaism and desire to belong to the Jewish community."
This is important as Or Avner schools face competition from non-Jewish private schools that have cropped up in recent years across the CIS, catering to the nouveau riche.