Jewish Life in Belarus
My interview with Israel Abramovits Karolinski, director of the Beis Aharon Boarding School in Pinsk.
The number 13 bus ride is not a long on from where Yad Yisroel, the new synagogue stands. To call it “the new synagogue” though would be somewhat misleading because the temple has been re-built under the direction of Rabbi Moishe Fhima on the exact site as the original temple which had long ago been over-taken by the soviet authorities.
We got off and walked up Ostrovskaye Street towards address 9a. The street both left and right has only soviet era apartment buildings; grey concrete block and brick rectangles, all without a hint of uniqueness. To the left there is the soccer field of a middle school and children were running and paying during 9am phis ed class. And then you see something that simply does not belong anywhere in the bleak landscape of conformity and cracked sidewalks: A brilliant and clean three story white house with a red roof and surrounded by a high, spiked metal fence. This is the Beis Aharon Boarding School, where I had been invited to come by its director, Israel Abramovich Karolinski.
Isreal Abromovich is a handsome man in his mid-sixties. He is sharp and attentive, is organized in his speaking and has a gentle though thoroughly commanding manner. He has been the director of the Beis Aharon school since its founding in august of 2000.
I spoke with Israel Abramovoch in his office for about an hour on September 21st and he was engaging to the last. Though obviously he was faithful to his position and most adherent to the schools association with the Republic of Belarus, he was quite open and candid. My impression was that any potential Belarusian student would be blessed with the opportunity to be able to come here.
How many Jewish schools are there in Belarus?
At the moment there is only one. There was a school in Minsk, but they have closed. Though there are classes in Jewish studies that can be taken in Minsk at State school 132 in Hebrew language and culture, but as far as actual schools are concerned, we are the only one.
The school is named for The Great Aharon, the founder of Karlin Hasidism. Would you consider the school to be connected directly to Karliner Hasidim?
We are not specifically associated with Karliner Hasidim because our funding comes from several private foundations. However, the idea for the school itself did come from Rabbi Moishe Fhima six years ago. He had just come here from Ukraine and approached me with the idea of starting classes here. I was at the time just retired from the Gymnasium where I had been the director. We rented space at another INTERNAT for three years, but as of two years ago, with the completion of this beautiful new house, we have been completely independent. And, as of this year, we have bought land and have begun construction on a separate school for the boys as well.
What grades (ages) are there?
We have children here from the sixth class (12 years old) until the 11th class (17).
Do you sponsor trips for them abroad? Specifically to Israel or the USA?
Yes we do, in fact we make available travel to each and every student here each summer holiday as well as making available for them places to go after graduation. Each year through our sponsors we send children to Ukraine, to France, Germany, England, Israel, the Czech Republic and more, all for exactly zero expense to the children or their families.
What sorts of (special) opportunities are available for students after the leave here?
We offer the entire standard curriculum that is available and required at any other state accredited school. But aside from the extra attention that each and every student here receives, we try to help them find their next step in life as well. Our sponsors make available opportunities abroad, in Israel and elsewhere as well as here in Belarus. After one of our students graduate, we usually help them find a placement for their next step in their studies to any country in the world that they might prefer and/or find a place. And this can be paid for as well. One boy for instance graduated two years ago and had wanted to go into the Israeli army. He was however rejected for being too small. He returned to the school and we have arranged for him to take up zoological studies and we have also allowed him to reside here while he does. All free of charge.
How many students do you have here?
At the moment we are completely full, and have 60 boys and sixty girls. For the girls, we have this Internat which we ourselves own. The boys rent space over at another Internat and attend classes there. However, this year we have bought some land here in town and soon the boys will be able to move there and we will be fully independent from needing to rent space.
What is the cost of tuition and housing at Beis Aharon?
The cost to our students and their families is exactly zero. We offer full housing, meals and education completely without cost.
Does this include the summer and after school travel expenses?
Yes it does. Our sponsors have so far been generous enough to make sure that each and every one of our students is cared for, fed and given the best education available.
How does The Beis Aharon School compare to other schools in Belarus?
We offer the same curriculum as any other state accredited school in the Republic of Belarus. We also offer and are authorized to award the same diplomas for both general and specialized studies. This being said, the average class size at other schools in Belarus consists normally of between 20 to 30 students each. Here at Beis Aharon, the classroom limit is only 10 per class and each and every student receives full attention from our staff. No student here is ever left to fail and no student here is ever deprived of a chance to succeed. And, it is important to point out that students here are taught as individuals unlike is the norm at other state schools of the republic. In this our style is quite different. Each of our students receives attention and help in their individual studies and are encouraged to find a path of their own.
It sounds as though you really do care about your students.
This is true. We do try. In fact, we start right from the beginning and keep detailed dossiers on each and every one of our students. For example this one. The parents were divorced, they live in Vtebsk, and the girl came to us at age 13. Here we have all of her school remarks in each of her subjects as well as a personal interview. This dossier will be referred to often by the staff as you can see by the remarks made by each of her teachers. We will try our best to help her realize her full potential as a student. And of course we do the same for all of our students.
How many teachers do you have?
At the moment we employ 19 full time teachers and 6 part time teachers to make a total of 25. We also have 10 duty teachers who assist with the children in other areas as well. 8 of our teachers are from Israel, five men and three women.
Do you offer religious studies here at the school?
Well, as we are an accredited state school of the Republic of Belarus, we of course have no right to specifically teach religious studies. This is the same for all religions at any school in the republic. However, if after school, the students wish to go to the synagogue, our duty teachers are available to go with them and there they may receive further religious studies as they wish.
Do you feel that Anti-Semitism is still strong here in this community?
I actually do not. We have had almost no problems whatsoever with the community and in fact we have come to the opinion that any such problems are probably as a result of provocation.
You do teach Hebrew here?
Of course we do. But also we teach, as is normal and required for all schools Russian, Belarusian and at least one other foreign language. In general this third language is Hebrew but we do offer continued education in whatever other foreign language the student comes here with. So, we have students studying in English, German, Spanish or French. And in fact we have some students who are now studying in Russian, Belarusian, Hebrew, English and German. So it is quite normal for our students to leave here with a reasonable knowledge of four or even five languages. Of course, we must make sure that the student is capable of handling the work load and anything beyond one foreign language (Other than Hebrew) must be approved by the staff. But of course it is not only possible to receive extra language studies, it is encouraged.
What sorts of students come to Beis Aharon?
We have three types of students who attend here. Some come here simply because there is no money to pay for them at home. Life of course is especially difficult in Belarus and a good percentage of our students come here simply for the opportunity of studying where it would otherwise not be possible. A second group might be thought of as those who have been thrown away. Of these cases we have parents who are alcoholics or are not there at all. Or worse they are there and practice abuse. It is a sad but true commentary on our world that this occurs far too often. But the third group of children who come to us are simply those who wish to receive a splendid in depth education, some real and positive attention and an opportunity to be where they can become who they were meant to be. Certainly not all of our students excel at all subjects and we have more than our share of 5 and 6 (C) students, but nevertheless we take great pride in seeing the results of our program on even the most difficult of our charges.
Can anyone come to this school? Even non-Jewish children?
Yes they can. As with any accredited state school of the Belarusian Republic, we cannot exclude anyone from enrolling and we do not discriminate against being non-Jewish or even for poor marks in the children’s studies. And in fact we are encouraging non-Jewish families to enroll their students. However, it should be said that as we are here primarily for the needs of the Jewish community, though we will offer space at our school to anyone, we cannot offer a free education and housing to families of non-Jewish children and they would be obligated to pay.
Have you ever turned any students away?
In general this is not the case. But there have been a few instances when we have decided that certain students would be better off not attending. These decisions were made in several cases where the students were sick and had needs and requirements beyond our abilities. And in a few other cases, there were several students whose mother’s were not Jewish and who therefore were denied access to free housing and meals and who consequently decided to go elsewhere. However, in general we try to grant enrollment to all who come to us.
How many students have enrolled this year and how many have graduated?
This month we have six new students attending and we have 11 who have recently graduated. Two of this year’s graduates have moved to Israel by the way, One bot and one girl and we have gotten word that they have gotten married there.
Where do the students come from?
Our students come from all corners of the republic of Belarus. We have now 10 or 12 students from Minsk, we have students from as far as Vtebsk and Grodno and many are from the villages as well. And of course we have many who are from right here in Pinsk.