As the academic year draws to a close, a group of girls from a high school in Italy will accomplish something unusual and opportune—acquire a diploma from the Israel Ministry of Education.

The Te’udat Bagrut is the official Israeli matriculation certificate attesting to graduation from high school; it’s also a prerequisite for higher education in Israel.

According to Rabbi Igal Hazan, director of administration and development at the Joe Nahmad High School in Milan—a Jewish institution run by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Italy—the impetus for starting the program came, in part, from a desire to spend more time teaching Jewish history and traditions.

Noting that the standard Italian high school curriculum is fairly rigid in terms of what it offers, Hazan notes that this doesn’t work for all Jewish teens.

“Jewish youth are looking for something more connected to their Jewish identity,” he says. “And if they have to study history or literature—if they can connect it to their Judaism or Israel—it is much more stimulating, especially for a religious teenager. We thought, well, if there’s an American school, and a Japanese school, and German and French schools, why not an Israel school?”

Selling the idea to parents, however, wasn’t so simple.

Rabbi Igal Hazan, director of administration and development at the school
Rabbi Igal Hazan, director of administration and development at the school

“This was the biggest challenge,” says Hazan. “As in all new programs, to be able to convince parents to trust you when you are starting something new … the concern was what would happen if the [program didn’t work]? Then they wouldn’t have a degree and wouldn’t be able to go on to university.”

Now that the first set of girls is graduating with an Israeli high school degree, he says, “parents are very enthusiastic about it.”

Interest From Students

Moreover, the students themselves are thriving.

“We’ve seen that kids in the lower grades, especially the middle school, were struggling and not relating to what was being taught. We see them blossoming in the Bagrut because they’ve found a big interest in what is being taught,” explains Hazan. In this program, he continues, there is no differentiation between secular studies and religious studies.

“To be able to do this outside of Israel,” he adds, “is very special.”

Merging the Judaic and secular learning certainly appealed to high school senior Chanci Nazrolai, one of the six seniors graduating at the end of June with a high school diploma from the State of Israel, which from now on is the official degree of the school.

“It is important to me to study for the Bagruiot because of the great combination of high academic level without compromising Jewish studies,” she says. “The history is Jewish, the political science is Jewish, the literature is Jewish, and even the math is Jewish.”

Noting that she will be studying at the Beit Chana seminary in Safed later this year, she says that “having done the Bagruiot will help me there since I am now fluent in Hebrew and have a very strong Jewish education.”

Rabbi Gershon M. Garelik, the first Chabad emissary to Italy who started his shlichus in 1958, affixes a mezuzah in the school, flanked by school director Rabbi Igal Hazan on the left and school dean Rabbi Avraham Hazan on the right.
Rabbi Gershon M. Garelik, the first Chabad emissary to Italy who started his shlichus in 1958, affixes a mezuzah in the school, flanked by school director Rabbi Igal Hazan on the left and school dean Rabbi Avraham Hazan on the right.

To ensure that the students are prepared for the exams, each area of coursework given at the school replicates what is taught in Israeli schools—right down to the textbooks.

As for the exams, they are sent to Milan—home to some 10,000 Jews—and administered the same time students in Israel are taking the tests. They are then packed up and sent to the Israel education ministry for grading.

The Bagrut tests are on par with the New York State Regents’ Exams and ETS Advanced Placement (AP) tests, and scores are reviewed when young adults apply to elite military units and Israeli academic institutions.

Israeli Culture in Europe

“This is the easiest way to link the Jewish world,” says Moshe De Calo, who heads up the examination department in the Israel Ministry of Education and is working with the school on this initiative.

When asked if he’s pleased with a progress of the program, De Calo responds with an anecdote.

“Last Monday, we had the examination in Tanach [Bible]. The teacher in Milan had a question about the exam, and she called our headquarters and spoke to the person in charge,” and he answered her question immediately, relates De Calo.

This shows, he says, “that they are a part of us—and that’s a good thing.”

The Joe Nahmad High School is an outgrowth of the greater Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch in Italy, which has run an elementary school for some 50 years now. This, however, will be the first time Merkos has a graduating high school class. At present, 25 students—most of whom live in Italy—attend the high school, which is currently accepting applications from girls throughout Europe for next year.

Milan offers another Jewish high school, according to Hazan, which follows the traditional Italian curriculum.

As for his educational institution’s program, he says: “All those who hear about it are enthusiastic.”

In Israel recently at the education ministry: from left, Joe Nahmad High School director Rabbi Igal Hazan; school dean Rabbi Avraham Hazan; Israel's Minister of Education Shai Piron; director-general of the education ministry Michal Cohen; school principal Rivka Hazan; and school coordinator Hamutal Wolkowiez.
In Israel recently at the education ministry: from left, Joe Nahmad High School director Rabbi Igal Hazan; school dean Rabbi Avraham Hazan; Israel's Minister of Education Shai Piron; director-general of the education ministry Michal Cohen; school principal Rivka Hazan; and school coordinator Hamutal Wolkowiez.

“We are bringing Israeli cultural and Israeli education out of Israel,” he continues. “We are revolutionizing the high school education of our students.”

Given the success of the program, preliminary talks are underway between the Israel Ministry of Education to see if there might be interest in having similar programs in schools in Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“It is important to me to have a Bagrut,” says Hannale Livian of Milan, who plans on going to Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan in the fall. “While studying for it,I have learned a lot about Israeli history, culture and politics, and I feel part of Israel. This will make it easier for me to get into Israeli universities and to get settled once I make aliyah [a permanent move to Israel].”

“If you ask me, [we can] do it … anywhere in the world,” insists De Calo. “Jewish boys and girls can do their matriculation, and then come to Israel and study.”