A flock of kindergarten students at Vienna’s Lauder Chabad School filled the hallways waving hand-colored signs and homemade flags greeting Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky on his official visit last week. Upon the cue of principal Chani Eidelman, the children burst into a Hebrew song of welcome, eliciting a warm response from Sharansky.
The day following Sharansky’s visit, the city’s largest circulation newspaper ran a headline with a quote: “The best place to begin my European tour is speaking to youth in Jewish schools.” With anti-Israel sentiments surging in Europe, an itinerary that placed a visit with Jewish children at a Jewish school as its first stop, sent a strong message about the unbreakable Jewish spirit.
It is no surprise that Sharansky, who emerged from the bowels of Soviet imprisonment to become a powerful political figure in Israel, should feel kinship with the students at the Lauder Chabad School. Opening in 1995 with a handful of children in a two-room space, it was a bold attempt to reestablish a Jewish school in a place once notorious for its intolerance of Jewish life. Today, Lauder Chabad has grown into modern campus designed by architect Adolf Krischanitz bursting with more than 400 students from nursery school through its teacher training academy.
While the Ronald Lauder Foundation provided the funds that made this transformation and the school’s ongoing operation possible, it was the Austrian government’s desire to make amends for the devastation of the Holocaust that gave the Lauder Chabad School its magnificent location. The school stands on the Augarten, once the private grounds of Kaiser Franz Josef, and now a precisely manicured municipal park.
Entering the school grounds one travels along Rabbiner-Schneerson Platz, thus renamed in honor of the leader of the Chabad movement. “The city council approved the name change with a unanimous vote,” says Lauder Chabad school director Rabbi Jacob Biderman.
Though the school’s reputation for scholastic excellence and its state-of-the-art facilities make it notable, it is the Lauder Chabad School’s symbolic value as tangible evidence of re-emerging Jewish life in Austria, says Biderman, that has made it a magnet for traveling dignitaries. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the President of the EU, the wife of Israeli President Moshe Katsav have toured the campus. Austrian politicians, such as former Chancellor Viktor Klima visited and described the school as a “symbol of tolerance and integration.”
Sharansky, who made the stop of at the Chabad Lauder School as part of his ten-day European “Tour of Democracy,” tapped into this spirit in his remarks to the children. As Sharansky, who currently serves as Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, made his way up the three-storied, glass fronted campus, he stopped to accept a gift from the elementary school children. In the high school’s library he addressed one hundred high school and teaching academy students, whose Viennese manners could not mask their excitement at meeting the famed Sharansky.
“He said that the politicians should focus on the education of children because they offer hope for the future,” conveys Biderman. “If they learn to hold onto their beliefs and have the right values, then good will prevail.”
In his presentation, Sharansky drew from his own travails as a Jewish dissident who was imprisoned by Soviet authorities for thirteen years, suffering torture and solitary confinement. Sharansky told the students, says Biderman, that “the judge once asked [Sharansky] ‘What do you have to say to us?’ He told him, ‘I have nothing to say to you, but there is something I want to tell my father: Next year in Jerusalem.’ He told the students to stand up for ethics under all conditions.”
After his remarks at the Lauder Chabad School, Sharansky continued his speaking tour with stops in Geneva, Switzerland, and Brussels, Belgium. Throughout the tour, Sharansky spoke to Jewish students at college campuses under the auspices European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and the European Center for Jewish Students in cooperation with the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. Sharansky’s nine-stop tour was arranged “in response to the challenges European Jewish students face as anti-Semitism intensifies on universities across the continent,” according to the EUJS.