(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Cosmetics magnate and prominent philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder has invested $350 million over the last two decades to build a Jewish educational system throughout Eastern and Central Europe, his spokesman said Thursday.
The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is marking its 20th anniversary, supports a network of 15 Jewish schools in more than a dozen European countries. Over the last 20 years, 34,000 Jewish children have attended these schools, Lauder's spokesman Amiram Fleischer said.
Lauder opened the network's first school in Vienna in 1987 after seeing the influx of Russian children who had come to the Austrian capital from the former Soviet Union on the way to Israel or the United States but had remained in the country.
"These children were completely lost, and the effect of having a Jewish school was enormous," Lauder told The Jerusalem Post by telephone from Vienna, where he was marking his foundation's 20th year anniversary.
Despite the initial apprehension of parents about sending their children to a Jewish school, some of the schools now have waiting lists due to their popularity, he said. The schools have classes from kindergarten to high school.
As anti-Semitism increased throughout Europe over the last decade, Lauder said, more Jewish children wanted to come to the Jewish schools. In some countries they were the first Jewish schools in operation since World War II.
For state officials, it was also a point of national pride that they had a Jewish school in their country, to show that there was Jewish life in areas where the destruction of the Holocaust was followed by the oppression of the Communist rule, he said.
"It comes down to this: either you agree that every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education, or you do not," Lauder said. "If you do not agree, the Jews who remain in Central and Eastern Europe can be written off."
The schools teach the basics of Judaism, Hebrew and organize trips to Israel.
"These students are more involved in Israel than their counterparts in the West," Lauder said.