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A pluralistic Jewish school in Ukraine fended off what its sponsors say were attempts by Chabad to take over one of the oldest Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union.
Last week the Jerusalem-based Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, affiliated with the Masorti, or Conservative movement that supports School No.41 in Chernovsty, accused Chabad representatives of attempting "to take control" of the 15-year-old school "in order to transform it into an ultra-Orthodox institution."
A representative of the Schechter Institute told JTA this week that a takeover at the movement's sole school in the former Soviet Union had been averted.
"Because of the parents and the teachers who were not willing to accept the situation, the school will remain pluralistic," said Eitan Cooper, vice president of the Schechter Institute.
The institute is supporting the school through Midreshet Yerushalayim, an educational and Jewish-enrichment group within the Masorti network.
Cooper said "there was a lot of letter writing and protesting" in the local Jewish community when the Chabad plans became known. He said the protests helped convince city officials to preserve the status quo.
In early May, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Glitzenstein, the Chabad emissary in Chernovtsy, sent a letter to the city's education department proposing to turn School No. 41 into "a private school and kindergarten," said Lyudmila Sirko, the department's deputy head.
In a May 21 press release, the Schechter Institute accused Glitzenstein of offering "Chernovtsy municipal authorities $160,000 per year for the school."
That amount is several times the school's present $35,000 annual budget, most of which is provided by the municipality.
When Glitzenstein's initiative was public, many teachers, students and their parents sent letters of protest to Ukraine's Ministry of Education and to the mayor of Chernovtsy. The letters said, in essence, that the proposal was an attempt to "force" fervently Orthodox Jewish education upon students at School No.41.
Glitzenstein told JTA that his group never tried to take over the school. His goal, he said, was to start a good Jewish day school in Chernovtsy and not to hurt the Conservative-supported school, which he claims teaches mainly non-Jews.
"Today this school is in fact secular," Glitzenstein said. "I would like to collect all Jewish children at one Jewish school" that will offer them a "high level of education."
The head of the Or Avner school network, the educational arm of Chabad in the former Soviet Union that comprises 75 Jewish day schools, also told JTA that his organization never actually intended to take over the Conservative school.
"Our representative in Chernovtsy approached the local authorities requesting the opening of a Jewish school in the city," David Mondshine, the Moscow-based director of the Or Avner Foundation, wrote to JTA on Tuesday. "This does not concern a school that would replace the existing school, but rather an additional school."
Funding from the Or Avner Foundation, which is headed by Israeli billionaire and philanthropist Lev Leviev, enables many of the Chabad schools to operate without charging tuition.
But leaders of the small Conservative movement in Ukraine dispute Mondshine's claim.
"I'm shocked by this attempt to take over our pluralistic school and to deprive our children of their right to an alternative" to Orthodoxy, said Diana Gold, one of the leaders of the Conservative movement in Ukraine and a graduate of School No. 41.
The Chernovtsy school operates as a secular public school with Jewish ethnic and cultural components. It teaches Hebrew, Jewish history and culture, as well as Jewish traditions and literature. The Jewish curriculum is prepared by Midreshet Yerushalayim in Jerusalem.
The Conservative movement does not have any synagogues in the former Soviet Union, focusing instead on Jewish educational activities. In addition to the Chernovtsy school, it runs a number of Sunday schools and student groups, the Armon Educational and Cultural Center in Kiev, a Ramah summer camp and family camp, teacher training seminars and family educational programs.
Movement leaders estimate that about 1,000 Ukrainian Jews take part in these activities.
The Chernovtsy school has 308 students from first to 11th grade. About two-thirds of them are Jews according to the Israeli Law of Return, meaning they must have at least one Jewish grandparent, said principal Lyudviga Tzurkan.
Some parents said they were unhappy at the thought of joining Chabad's network because they feared Chabad would exclude students who are not halachically Jewish, meaning those with non-Jewish mothers.
"I have a negative attitude to this idea because Chabad would discriminate against students," said Svetlana Rafalson, whose daughter Nikita is a seventh-grader at the school.
Lyudmila Rudan, the grandmother of sixth-grader Alexander Titov, said she valued the "equal approach to halachic and non-halachic students in our school."
Mondshine confirmed that "the policies of the Or Avner schools is indeed to accept only children who are Jewish according to halacha, but Or Avner as a foundation supports every Jewish school that requests assistance in strengthening its Jewish studies."
Responding to the protests by parents and teachers, city officials said they saw no reason for the school to change.
"This school has good teachers and teaches both Jews and non-Jews," said Sirko of the city's education department. "I can't find any reasons for such a reorganization."
JTA's Moscow bureau chief Lev Krichesvky contributed to this report