An ultra-Orthodox school in the heart of Tel Aviv sounds like an oxymoron, but this is the story behind the Oholei Menachem School in the city’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood, where hundreds of children from the Chabad community learn. Unlike most Chabad schools in other Israeli cities, this school teaches core curriculum classes on secular subjects such as math.
In normal times, when coronavirus is not disrupting our lives, children of Tel Aviv lawyers play soccer with children of rabbis during recess before sitting down for their Talmud class.
The idea for this type of school was first proposed 40 years ago, when Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson appointed Rabbi Yosef Gerlitzky, a young Chabadnik from Canada, and his wife, Hinda, from Kfar Chabad, to be shluchim (Chabad emissaries) in Tel Aviv. A few years after working with the community there, they asked the Rebbe if they should open a Talmud Torah school in the neighborhood, or a regular school. The Rebbe’s response was decisive, “A Talmud Torah, so that all the children can have access to the purity of Judaism.”
When they opened the school’s doors in 1984, they had only five students, one teacher and no funds to pay for a building. But just three years later, there were 40 students learning in two dilapidated caravans. After the school had been open for a decade, Rabbi Gerlitzky brought his friend, former MK Avigdor Kahalani, who at the time was serving as acting mayor of Tel Aviv, for a tour.
“I got the shock of my life that day,” admits Kahalani. “I’d always heard stories from my relatives who’d grown up in Yemen, how the boys had sat on the floor in their Torah study classes, but I never thought I’d see children learning in such squalid conditions in Tel Aviv of the 1990s. There were children squished into small rooms, some of whom didn’t even have a chair to sit on. I knew that Rabbi Gerlitzky’s Chabad school accepts all children who want to learn there, and so they had no political representative in the municipality. I made a decision right there and then to do what I could to have the Tel Aviv Municipality officially recognize this wonderful educational institution.”
“The Chabad movement’s motto is that study of Torah and Jewish values does not belong to any single sector,” explains Rabbi Gerlitzky. “Every child from every family is welcome to come learn in our school. The school is not geared toward children from haredi or Chabad families. We welcome everyone – full stop.
“It’s not been easy keeping this type of school open, and we face obstacles and challenges on a daily basis, but we are so proud to still be here. It’s like a dream come true.”
FULFILLING THIS dream has not been easy, of course. Even though he faced tough opposition from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, as well as from the Education Ministry, the rabbi kept showing up year after year armed with his famous smile and endless patience to ask for financial support from the Israeli government.
“When I was a young shaliach, the Rebbe told me that I was responsible for making sure that every Jewish child in Tel Aviv knew how to recite Modeh Ani and the Shema,” recalls Rabbi Gerlitzky, referring to two essential Jewish prayers. “This was no simple task, but as a shaliach of the Rebbe, I could not rest until I’d fulfilled the mission I’d been given.”
His continuous efforts and persistence finally bore fruit, and today the school has a bustling campus with more than 600 preschool and elementary school students who learn in a full-day program that incorporates both high-level Torah studies (that are on par with any cheder in Bnei Brak or Kfar Chabad, says one of the parents), as well as a full secular-studies program including all the core curriculum courses.
“Our students perform among the top achievers on the national Meitzav assessment exams in Hebrew language and math,” boasts the principal, Rabbi Schneior Aharon. “In most of the exams, our students place in the top 10% nationally. I don’t deny that the main focus of our school is Torah study, including Mishna, Gemara, Hassidut and instilling Chabad and other Jewish values, such as honoring your mother and father. But since the Torah teaches us to strive for excellence, we are also extremely successful in every subject we teach.”
Rotem Jared, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, never thought he’d send his children to a haredi school, but now he is sending his third son there.
“Without even noticing it was happening, I had become the school’s unofficial ambassador,” Jared says with a big smile. “I love boasting about this amazing school. I’d be surprised if you could find one other school in the city where the teachers and staff have such a personal connection with all the students and parents. Every single person working there feels like they are playing a role in the children’s happiness and academic success. Just like there are shluchim in Kathmandu, there are Chabad shluchim here for my child, too.
“The school’s aspiration for excellence has never come at the expense of any of the children, as empathy and concern for each pupil is of ultimate importance. It’s beautiful that there are children from all sorts of different backgrounds here learning together. It’s a real sight to see.”
“I’m much more traditional in my religious observance than my husband,” explains Hadar Goli, a lawyer from north Tel Aviv. “He grew up on a kibbutz, is very athletic and doesn’t engage in many Jewish rituals. It took me a long time to convince him to send our son to this school, and that we need to think long and hard about how we want to educate him. He’s now in his sixth year at the Chabad school, and I can honestly say it was the best decision we ever made. He would never have received this type of education at any other school.”
“Every parent who sees how children are growing up today with smartphones and access to everything on the Internet is naturally worried,” continues Goli. “I feel like I’ve found the best solution to deal with these concerns. The integration of Torah and secular studies at the Chabad school has been pretty successful. The staff are so engaged with and attentive to the students, and we are extremely happy with how they teach the children to respect each other. It’s pretty rare to find an educational institution like this in the era of smartphones.”
Rabbi Menachem Gerlitzky, a Chabad shaliach in north Tel Aviv and the son of Rabbi Yosef Gerlitzky, has been serving as director of the chain of Chabad schools in Tel Aviv for a number of years now. According to him, Oholei Menachem is their flagship school. He recently took us on a tour of the school, where we saw the children split up into small capsules – with some in the playground, some doing extracurricular activities (electronics, carpentry, music and capoeira-style martial arts) and some in classrooms.
“We believe that every hour the students are here at school should be used to teach them values that will shape their personalities in the way of Hassidism,” explains Menachem Gerlitzky. “My grandfather, Rabbi Yeshayahu Gupin, opened up a school in Kfar Chabad where he taught carpentry, printing and electronics to thousands of children who came there from all over the country. Every minute that he spent teaching about how to lubricate the machines or assemble parts was full of Jewish content. He raised an entire generation of professionals who to this day are still connected to the Torah, to the Land of Israel and to the people of Israel.”
ACCORDING TO Rabbi Menachem Gerlitzky, one of the ways they are able to maintain their uniqueness is by having a very specific uniform from head to toe.
“And it’s so interesting to see that the non-haredi families seem happier with the school’s list of restrictions and regulations than the haredi families – especially with respect to access to Internet and use of smartphones,” he explains. “Almost all of the wealthy families from north Tel Aviv who send their kids to us tell us: ‘I want my child to be like kids used to be in the olden days.’
“People yearn for the simpler days when children respected their elders, treated each other well, had strong faith and felt connected to their Jewish traditions. Our Talmud Torah fulfills all of these.”
Of course, as the students’ daily routine has been disrupted due to coronavirus restrictions, the school has really been put to the test.
“Our staff and teachers have worked hard to find a way to keep our school going virtually during lockdowns and for students in quarantine. This is especially difficult when using filters on computers,” continues Rabbi Menachem Gerlitzky. “We’ve succeeded to hold almost 100% of our lessons virtually. Our teachers call their students on a daily basis, and sometimes even go visit them at home. Even when classes are held on site between lockdowns, there are always a few students in quarantine, so we have a system to keep them included and participating as much as possible from home so they still feel like they’re part of the class.”
“I’ve heard some people comment that our school is at its peak, but in my mind, we’ve just set out on our path,” concludes the elder Gerlitzky. “There are so many ways we are working to develop the school and grow. We feel a responsibility to contribute to the community here in Tel Aviv and to join the conversation. Our investment in this school is part of our efforts to bring light and values to all the children who live in Tel Aviv.
“Everyone deserves to benefit from the beautiful heritage of their ancestors.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.