In a villa where Nazi officers once unwound from their barbaric slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population, the eager voices of thirty-five Jewish children will soon be heard. When Chabad opens the first modern-day traditional Jewish elementary school in Berlin in September the children will be reciting the Shema Yisrael, and singing about Jewish holidays.
“It is the very best answer to the Nazis, and part of the Rebbe’s vision that we must bring light into the essence of darkness,” said Chabad’s representative in Berlin Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtal.
To ready the school over the summer, mini-desks with matching junior chairs are being hauled through the 100,000 square foot gardens into the building. The Jewish studies principal and her husband are moving to Germany from Israel. Finishing touches on the curriculum are being made. And registration is still open in the school that the Jewish community, the German government and Chabad are hoping will sow seeds for a solid Jewish future.
Until the school, known as Talmud Torah Or Avner or Jueddishe Traditionschule Talmud Torah, was created, there were no schools here that provided its students with a traditional Jewish education. The demand for the school is an outgrowth of the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany resulting from Jewish organizations like the Rohr Chabad Center of Berlin and by the influx of émigrés from the former Soviet Union which swelled the Jewish population in Germany from 35,000 to about 200,000, according to Rabbi Tiechtal.
Last year, Chabad opened its kindergarten in the villa with eight children. The student body has since quadrupled. “Until now, Jewish families who made a deeper commitment to Judaism would pick themselves up and move to France or to other places when they wanted to give their children a Jewish education,” said Tiechtal.
Community leaders have even greater hopes for the school. “I am certain that this will bring people to Berlin,” Albert Meyer, president of the Jewish Community of Berlin, told Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a recent interview.
He said the existing Jewish grammar school and high school in Berlin “have little Jewish identity. For a liberal-minded person like I am, this is ok,” he said. “But we have to provide sufficient ways to educate traditional families. Therefore this is an enrichment of Berlin.”
Government officials gave their blessing to the school designating it as a state-recognized school. This is much sought by new schools, but very few receive it and those who do must wait years for official sanction. “When the President of the Jewish Community and I went to the ministry for approval, the minister asked if I wanted to open the school for 2006 or 2007,” Teichtal recalled. “When I said I wanted to open by September 2005, he laughed.”
When the school—and the quality of its proposed curriculum—were recognized as a continuation of the traditional Jewish schools that once called Berlin home, it was grandfathered into the system where bureaucratic holdups normally delay this process indefinitely. “The Minister of Education of Berlin, Mr. Klaus Boger is a person who appreciates what Chabad has done in the city and for people in the community, and we received official government approval in seven months,” said Teichtal. Among other benefits, this official designation entitles the school to government funding of 93% of the secular teachers’ salaries.
Chabad’s school is also opening as Germany reels from yet another poor showing on the PISA study, the Program for International Student Assessment, a worldwide test of 15-year-old schoolchildren’s scholastic performance given every three years. German educators blamed traditional approaches to teaching for the low scores. Chabad’s decision to go with group work and other modern student-centered approaches put a sheen on the school’s application for state approval.
The school is set to grow with the students, but Rabbi Tiechtal already has an eye on the school’s long term impact. Today most rabbis, cantors, Judaic studies’ teachers, and other Jewish leaders come from outside of Germany. “To read the Torah here, you have to find someone old, say from Poland, who remembers how to read or someone imported by Chabad or other groups,” said Teichtal. “We are providing a place to raise homegrown spiritual leaders for the future.”
Major funding for the school has come from the Or Avner Foundation, which is the philanthropic child of businessman Lev Leviev. “To think there is someone in Israel worrying about Jewish children who have emigrated from Russia to Germany is something which is a true example for others to follow,” said Rabbi Teichtal.
Simultaneous with school’s grand opening preparations, Chabad of Berlin’s new $5 million building is being constructed with donations from the Rohr Family Foundation. The school will be under the auspices of the Rohr Chabad Center of Berlin. The foundation’s patriarch’s childhood home was on Nachodstrausse in Berlin. “Sam Rohr knows the past and is investing in the future of Berlin,” said Tiechtal. “It is thanks to him that this center has opened its doors to thousands. He is completing the circle by ensuring Jewish continuity.”