Jewish Education on the Rebound in Argentina


BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

March 11, 2005

South America’s largest Jewish community is keeping its eyes peeled on the Wolfsohn School, a former flagship school of Argentina’s Conservative Jewish movement, which opened this week under the auspices of Chabad-Lubavitch as the Centre de Education Judaica Menajem M. Tabacinic.

Many community members are rooting for the success of the school which faced certain foreclosure last September. In its heyday, registration at Wolfsohn, the oldest Jewish institution in Belgrano Village--an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood--topped the 1,000 mark. But numbers have dwindled in recent years to an all time low of 150, and five months ago, it was only a question of whether the 100 year-old neighborhood landmark would convert to a supermarket or a sports center.

But Mr. Leon Wasserman, the former president of Wolfsohn had another idea. “I knew that Chabad could use the building,” he told Lubavitch.com. Rabbi Shlomo Kissel, Chabad representative to Belgrano, had asked Wasserman for use of the building for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as the Wolfsohn synagogue was anyways closed for the holidays, and Chabad’s crowd was too big for the Chabad Center.

So Wasserman would wrap Wolfsohn’s two buildings and a two million dollar accumulated debt (actually 7 million before the peso devaluation), into a neat package for $1 million, and offer it to Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Argentina,

Grunblatt rejected the offer. “It was a good deal but I’m not in the real estate business,” he says.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Wassernman to return with a second proposal. “He came back and offered the school, with the students. Now I was interested,” says Grunblatt.

As a devoted representative (or Shliach) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Grunblatt knows what he wants, and is not coy about reaching for it. Under his directorship, Chabad-Lubavitch in Argentina has opened 25 centers, serving 10 cities country wide. Steadfast in a Lubavitch worldview that informs all of his activities, his easy manner and warm personality make him well liked and approachable even by those who don't subscribe to his ideological and religious views. During the economic crisis that devastated the Jewish community, Grunblatt turned 14 of his Chabad Houses in seven cities into relief centers, becoming one the largest humanitarian relief providers to the country’s 250,000 Jews. He also founded the Ieladenu Program, a UNICEF-recognized foster care service for children at risk of abandonment, abuse and malnutrition—the only Jewish program of its kind in South America serving 250 children.

Himself an Argentinian, the 50 year-old father of 12 explains that Jewish education is his first responsibility. The Wolfsohn situation presented an opportunity—“The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that no Jewish child should be left without a Jewish education, and here 150 Jewish children might have ended up in public schools. Chabad had a chance to do something about it. The school and location presented an opportunity to reach out to a new segment of the Jewish population.”

But he’d have to fight for the students—many whose parents at first wouldn’t hear of sending their children to a Chabad-run school. “Parents were afraid of Chabad’s orthodoxy, and worried about whether the school would concentrate on high scholastic achievement,” he explains.

Over the next few months, Grunblatt and Kissel met with parents, addressing their concerns and explaining what the school’s requirements would be concerning adherence to Jewish religious standards. Parents needed to be convinced that a rich Jewish education is compatible with a high level secular curriculum, and Grunblatt conducted a search for a highly qualified general director and top rate teachers. The academic standards of his newly formed school would compete with the highest nationwide, and make this a choice school, he promised parents.

On March 7, the beginning of the academic year in Buenos Aires and only a few months since Chabad stepped in, the newly renovated building now named the Tabicinik Center for Jewish Studies—Wolfsohn School opened with 150 students, including kindergarten through fifth grade. “Ninety percent of the former students stayed with us, and several new students joined,” says a gratified Grunblatt.

One parent, Mr. Kolasik, whose 8-year-old son Brian had been a student at the former Wolfsohn for five years, told Lubavitch.com that he now has high hopes that Brian and his three-year-old brother—also enrolled in the school—will finally benefit from a substantive Jewish education. “I’m very satisfied with the way Chabad coped with the school’s financial debt, the building maintenance, and especially the change to a better quality of education,” he says.

In a city that has seen the closure of some 20 Jewish schools in the past two decades, this is a significant accomplishment. Dr. Norberto Markel, Wolfsohn’s accountant who points to mismanagement, poor administration and thin Jewish content for the former school’s decline, was instrumental in facilitating the transfer. The only thing that mattered to him, he says, is that the school does not go the way of the other Jewish schools in Buenos Aires and “become another supermarket.”

“I wanted this to be a true Jewish school,” says Markel, “and if Chabad will reach out to everyone, it will succeed.”

Grunblatt is reaching out. He appreciates the concerns of parents and has dedicated himself to accommodating them with empathy. “Look, I don’t want students eating non-kosher food in the school,” he explains. “But most of the students are not from kosher homes, so the school has assumed responsibility to provide hot, three-course lunches to all students, so that kosher is observed without any imposition on the families.”

The school is working hard on all fronts to appeal to all Jewish children, no matter their background. Mr. Gustavo Dvoskin, who was selected as General Director of the school points out that “the crisis of the last twenty years have kept our children away from Jewish schools, and we are making a huge effort to guarantee the highest level of Jewish and secular studies.

“There’s a big test we must pass this year, and we intend to honor the trust the community has placed in our hands. We don’t want to be just another school. We want to be a distinguished institution. This school will work to give students the tools which will allow them to think with both freedom and responsibility, regarding what is expected from a young Jewish person in 2005.”

It’s the third historic school and community that Chabad managed to save in recent years: The Tel Aviv School of Helguera Street in the Villa del Parque neighborhood opened this week with 106 students, as did Chabad’s Hillel School, both under the directorship of the local Chabad representative, Rabbi David Stoler. So did the famous Baron Hirsch Synagogue and Talmud Torah which Chabad paid to save, renovating the building and opening a vibrant Chabad Center and kindergarten for the Almagro Jewish community.

With this, explains Grunblatt, Chabad is introducing a new dynamic for Argentina’s Jewish educational system. “Until now only observant Jews were sending their children to Chabad schools.” Now, with six schools around the country catering to non-observant students, says Grunblatt, "Chabad may well become a standard bearer of mainstream Jewish education in Argentina."

Today, hundreds of Jewish children in Argentina participate in one or another of Chabad’s educational programs. From Morasha, an afterschool program that reaches 500 Jewish children in some of Buenos Aires’s poorest ghettos, to Meorot in the exclusive neighborhood of Olleros Street, Chabad is making deep inroads to this country’s Jewish population.

“After a long period of uncertainty in which the efforts of many people weren’t enough to save the institution,” observes General Director Dvoskin, “Chabad stepped in and we are now glimpsing a future of hope an optimism.”

by Baila Olidort

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