The Ohr Avner Levi Yitzhak Schneerson Day School in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, saluted its first director, Semyon Kaplunsky, in a grand celebration on occasion of his 70th birthday.
More than 50 Jewish community members took seats at one of several long tables decorated with green and yellow napkins, and dotted with bottles of wine and an assortment of salads. Meanwhile, a rainbow of balloons hung from the ceiling of the Ohr Avner conference room.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetski, chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, lauded Kaplunsky for his role in the city's Jewish revival.
Calling him a "cheerful and lively man," Kaminetsky said that Kaplunsky "gives positive energy to people around him."
The boyhood home of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Dnepropetrovsk once boasted a Jewish community that before World War II comprised a full 20 percent of the city's citizens. But German forces murdered 20,000 Jewish residents in 1941; by 1970, the city had only one synagogue. When Kaminetski arrived in 1990, he found a small group of elderly people who prayed in the dilapidated shul.
Kaplunsky took up the leadership of the school – named after the Rebbe's father and past-chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory – in 1991, then just an annex of Dnepropetrovsk's Municipal School 58. Just two years later, with an enrollment of 300 students, it transferred to its own location and won the right to form an independent board.
Today, the school building has 21 classrooms and a student body of 700 children aged 6-17. Its staff of 59 teachers, four of whom are appointed by Israel's Ministry of Education, teach Hebrew, Jewish studies and a full slate of secular subjects.
The school, funded by the Ohr Avner Foundation headed by philanthropist Lev Leviev, is recognized as a key element in the ascendance of Dnepropetrovsk's Jewish community, one of the largest in Ukraine.
Community chairman Hersh Korol told the assembled guests what the school was like when he met Kaplunsky. In the early years, the institution lacked enough textbooks, he said. But thanks to Kaplunsky's effort, the school is today a "great success."
The birthday celebration also featured a brass band and a performance by tenor Edward Srebnitsky.
For his part, Kaplunsky said that he was touched by the outpouring of sentiment.
"I'm astonished by the celebration organized by my family and community" he said. "I'm touched by the attention, and thank everyone who's working on the revival of true Jewish life in Dnepropetrovsk."