New Spirit in the Shtetl

It's run by Chabad and named for the wife of the late Rebbe, but Beit Hannah, the only Jewish teachers college in the CIS, defies expectations.

Ukraine - Rabbi Mayer Stambler arranges the skullcap on his head, pauses for a moment to emphasize the effect, and operates the map that shows the distribution of the female students at the Beit Hannah teachers college in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. On the wall the students' trajectories light up, spread all over the Ukraine and the neighboring countries, continuing deep into Kazakhstan and Russia all the way to Khavarovsk on the border with China, not far from the Pacific Ocean. Pressing the electric switch again lights up the schools, all across the former Soviet Union, where graduates of the college are working. Stambler apologizes and says that this is just a partial picture. Since the map was created two or three years ago, new locales for students and graduates have been added, but now it is hard to add them.

Beit Hannah is the only Jewish teacher-training college in the territories of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In fact, there aren't many institutions like it anywhere in the world. This is a unique place. It is a Chabad institution down to the last detail, from pictures of the Lubavitcher dynasty, through the Orthodox emphases in the sacred studies to the strict dress code, but the school's academic degree is recognized by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and is identical to the teaching degrees granted at other local colleges. The classes in Judaism, Bible, rabbinical law, Jewish history and Hebrew are offered as additions to the government curriculum and not in its stead.

Since the establishment of the college in 1995, about 300 students have completed the course. About 75 percent of the graduates are teaching in Jewish schools throughout the former Soviet Union, usually schools belonging to the Ohr Avner network, which was founded some 13 years ago by Lev Leviev, the Uzbeki-born ultra-Orthodox Israeli businessman. Leviev and Ohr Avner are also the main financial backers of Beit Hannah, whose budget comes to about $15 million annually. However, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Jewish community of Boston, which has adopted Dnipropetrovsk, participate in the funding of a considerable part of the activities, which include visits to Israel and regular academic cooperation with Israeli institutions. The Israeli Education Ministry also recognizes the college's courses. A large picture of President Moshe Katsav, surrounded by festively attired students, adorns its entrance.

The college in Dnipropetrovsk, a city about 500 kilometers from the capital Kiev, at first glance, has an almost totally institutional look. The daily timetable is strict: Wake-up time is at 6:30 A.M., the trip from the dormitory to the campus in the center of town, about five kilometers away, followed by abbreviated prayers, is at 7:40. There are classes from 8:30 to 1:00 P.M., punctuated by five-minute breaks. After a short lunch, classes continue until 4:15. Dinner is served at 6:30 back at the dormitory, whose gates are locked at exactly 9 P.M. The surrounding neighborhood, the teachers explain, is safe for neither Jews nor girls. Because of the distance, once or twice a week they try to organize an excursion into town or a movie.

"It's a bit like we are under closure here," admits one student. Unofficially, "lights out" is at about 10, but the computer room remains open until the small hours of the night. The students do their homework, write e-mail and conduct chats.

The dormitory, currently home to 109 students (approximately 90 more students come in every several months for a three-week period of intensive studies), in the past served as a sanatorium for workers from a large Dnipropetrovsk steel mill. The Soviet infrastructure has not changed much over the years: long, dark corridors, old furniture and a large dining hall, which has a single TV set. The rooms are relatively small and in each of them live three girls. The desks hold holy books, but also English, biology and Ukrainian history textbooks. Sometimes thoroughly secular books, such as "Secrets of Makeup," intermingle with the others. Over their desks or beds, some of the students have hung small pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. And there are those who prefer their boyfriend from back home.

The frequency of visits home ranges from once in two weeks, if the family happens to live in the region, to three or four times a year, for students who come from far away. The two students from Khabarovsk, on the Russian-Chinese border, fly east to Moscow and from there ride a train for 22 hours. "In the best case, they visit home once or twice a year," says Rabbi Stambler, the school's chairman. But the unfathomable distances are just one reason for the isolation. "Our students will sometimes be the only ones in a community who have knowledge in the transmission of the Jewish tradition. Therefore they have to remain in the dormitory on Friday and Saturday and learn this," one of the teachers explains. Stambler, 35, came to Dnipropetrovsk about 15 years ago and was among the first Chabad "emissaries" to the Communist bloc. At the start of the 1990s, he relates, the argument between Chabad and the people of the Jewish Agency and the government's Liaison Bureau became more acute concerning the correct action to take regarding in the renewing Jewish communities in the CIS. "The Zionists argued that all the Jews should be taken to Israel. However, we understand that the Jews will remain in the Diaspora until the Messiah comes, and hence it is necessary to invest in infrastructures here, to see to the existing community and to nurture it, for example though schools and the teachers college." Even if it remains unofficial, some of the Jewish Agency people have now adopted this outlook as well. "In recent years we have had a paradigm change in policy," says the Jewish Agency education emissary in the city, Haim Levitzky, "a transition from educational activities for purposes of immigration to Israel, to education for its own sake. We are supporting local development and the community does not relate to us as though we are 'stealing' the children."

Rubbing shoulders with multi-millionaires

Stambler is the right-hand man of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, 42, the chief rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk. Kaminetzky has been living in the city for 17 years now, a personal "emissary" of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The fact that the local Jewish community is identified with Chabad is credited mainly to him. Attempts in the past by other movements and streams to act in the city did were not successful. "We didn't plan to take over the city, but that is what has happened," he says.

The community is considered one of the strongest in the CIS, and during the past year, he says, it has contributed about $10 million to projects at Yad Vashem, to bringing Torah scrolls to the Western Wall synagogue and more, in addition to the operation of an advanced system of social services in Dnipropetrovsk itself. Kamenezki is proud of the fact that three out of the five wealthiest people in Ukraine are prominent members of the community. These are the wealthy benefactors - the gvirim (the Hebrew term for "lords," by which they are referred to here) - who by joining the community have made routine Jewish life - attending synagogue on the Sabbath, any kind of charitable activity - attractive.

"It's only at the synagogue that a young fellow of 20 has the opportunity to rub shoulders with a multi-millionaire. All of the wealthiest people in the city are Jewish and the gvirim have a great power of attraction. It's the common belief that the very fact of moving in their company will help later on in life," explains one girl who participates in the youth club that is run here by the Jewish Agency. Thanks to the gvirim, Jewish activity in the community has become "in," Rabbi Kaminetzky confirms. And why is this particular term used? "It's the shtetl culture. The shtetl is returning," he replies.

But even if the Jewish hamlet, or at least its culture, is coming back, it appears that this is a new version that is more up to date and less closed off. For example, a survey in one of the classes, conducted during the course of a lesson in rabbinical law, reveals that one-third of the students do not reject the possibility that they may one day teach at non-Jewish schools. "The education that I am getting here will enable me to teach at any school I choose," says one of them.

The Ukrainian reality all around Beit Hannah seeps in. It is so deeply embedded in the students' personalities that it is impossible to ignore it, sometimes to the distress of some of the more Orthodox teachers. "There are girls in the college who have a Christian background, and they don't understand what's wrong with that. This is a completely mixed generation. Their parents still remember something of their grandfather's home, but these young girls don't know much about Judaism," comments a veteran teacher at the college. He tells of one outstanding student who showed up pregnant at the start of the last school year. "There was a difficult debate about what to do. Were we just going to throw her out of the college after three years? And on the basis of what? However, we could not allow her to continue to live in the dormitory. In the end we decided that the best solution was to rent an apartment for her in town so she would be able to continue to attend classes." It could be that because of that incident, meetings between the students and their male friends have been forbidden on the boarding school premises. "Outside, it is possible to meet - we aren't a prison," says Stambler. Later, one of the students reveals that a solution to the ban has already been found: Girls who want to meet their boyfriends say that he is a relative who has come from far away, and he is invited into the building.

College director Tamara Olshanskaya estimates that only 10 percent of the students who are accepted are religious. By the time they complete their studies, three or four years later, she adds, the proportion has grown to 25 percent. "It is possible to get through the studies here by way of the mind or by way of the heart. If both organs work, that's wonderful, but that isn't the aim. We have graduates who are excellent teachers of Judaism and they are not religious," says Olshanskaya. Moreover, at the college, they prefer to downplay the fact, perhaps for fear of how it would be greeted in Israel, that under rabbinical law, some of the students are not Jewish at all. According to some of the teachers, the extent of this phenomenon amounts to about 20 percent.

Rivka-Ruth Mendel's story is an example, if an extreme one, of the inner change that students at the college experience. She was born in 1987 in Zhmerinka, a small city in central Ukraine, and attended a public school until ninth grade. Her parents are not Jewish. In fact, the last Jew in her family, she relates, was her mother's grandfather, and since then "no one in the family has married a Jew." She remembers that she participated in a number of Jewish holidays, "not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but Passover, yes. We read the Haggadah a bit, but there were both bread and matzah on the table."

When Mendel turned 15, she tried to get accepted to another Ohr Avner seminary in Ukraine. There, for the first time, she was told that she was not Jewish. Nevertheless, at the seminary they advised her try her luck at Beit Hannah, "because there they also accept non- Jewish girls."

"I contacted Beit Hannah and I said that I wasn't Jewish," she recalls. "They explained to me that it was possible to undergo conversion, and that I would be accepted for a trial period. They would be checking me out, and I would see whether I could get along so far from home. This was a very long adjustment period: without my mother, with new demands to dress modestly and keep kosher, without boys. The hardest thing to deal with was kashrut ... and prayer was also a problem: I didn't understand the words and why it was necessary to get up so early."

At the college they have found a simple solution to the prayer problem. During the first two years of studies prayers aren't compulsory, but it is explained to the students that they have to pray out loud in order to check their progress in Hebrew. Afterwards the praying becomes a matter of personal choice, but the probability that students will choose not to pray at all, after such a long period, is not very high.

At the start of the third year of studies at the college, for personal reasons, Mendel decided to undergo conversion. This was a long process, which culminated about a year and a half ago. In the end she also changed her name from Olga to Rikva-Ruth, because "a double name gives double strength to a convert." Her mother has accepted the conversion, and for her daughter's first visit home, she even bought her new eating utensils so that she can keep kosher there. "There are those who convert whose mothers stop being a mother to them. I'm happy that this didn't happen to me," says Rivka-Ruth. The change she has experienced is so deep and fundamental that she says, "On the one hand, it is good that at Beit Hannah they make it possible for you to convert, but on the other hand, the non-Jewish girls are a bad influence on the Jewish girls and distance them from religion." As far as Beit Hannah is concerned, the investment in Rivka-Ruth "paid off" in the end. But only a small number of the students who are not Jewish under rabbinical law choose the path of conversion. Half a year ago, Rivka-Ruth married Moshe Mendel; the newlyweds have made their home at the college.

On May 9, the students participated in the main ceremony on Karl Marx Boulevard to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany 62 years ago. They waited patiently for their turn, between a group of clerics and soldiers in uniform, and laid a wreath under the memorial to a Soviet soldier. For them, the participation in the ceremony was taken for granted. It is hard to distinguish among the three circles of identity - Chabadnik, Israeli and Ukrainian - at the college and the girls who study there. And it's not all clear that this should be done.

This is the fourth article in a series on Jewish education in the Diaspora.