More than 7,000 Jewish students across the former Soviet Union started the new learning year in the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) Chabad-Lubavitch Ohr Avner schools and kindergartens. Even though some already had their “first bell” openings late last week, for most the festive ceremony—customary in the post-Soviet education system—took place on Monday.

And in a unique Ohr Avner tradition, the ringing of the first bell also came with the blowing of the shofar—highlighting the Jewish character of the schools, and underlining the idea of an education aimed at excellence in both general subjects and Jewish heritage.

“The sounding of the shofar on the first day reflects the fact that Ohr Avner institutions are at the very heart of FJC endeavors to renew Jewish life in the former Soviet Union,” said Chaim Friedman, FJC educational director. “They help unify their surrounding communities, teach children the meaning of living as a Jew, and often, through the child, bring Judaism back into the homes of those who were raised on the Soviet agenda of atheism and cultural homogeny.”

Ohr Avner operates 125 educational institutions across 10 FSU countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It includes schools, kindergartens, afternoon and Sunday schools, as well as six higher-education institutes.

This year, hundreds of the incoming first-graders are joined by many newcomers from other schools in grades two through 11 who have made the decision to transfer following their positive experiences at Gan Israel camps this summer, according to Friedman. “Thanks to the camps, which attract a wide population, many students realized the importance of gaining a Jewish identity and expanding their role as part of the Jewish people, and so made the decision to transfer to our schools in the beginning of the year.”

Shofar sounds on the first day of school
Shofar sounds on the first day of school

Tuition is minimal, underwritten by the Ohr Avner Foundation and additional donors, which was founded by businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev, president of the FJC. The institutions also provide two daily hot meals, which sometimes serve as a child’s only nourishment of the day.

General subjects are taught by professional, locally trained staff, while Hebrew, history and Judaic-studies are taught through Darkeinu, FJC’s Jewish-studies curriculum created by a team of teachers, authors, psychologists and counselors. This year, Darkeinu is also launching in kindergartens, with an interactive and engaging curriculum.

“The Ohr Avner institutions have created a name for themselves as providing some of the best general and Jewish studies education available in the entire FSU region,” said Friedman. “We hope our students will be excited by the new horizons they discover.”

Kids eagerly take to the books again, delving into Jewish and general studies.
Kids eagerly take to the books again, delving into Jewish and general studies.
Ohr Avner operates 125 educational institutions across 10 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Ohr Avner operates 125 educational institutions across 10 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The institutions provide two daily hot meals, which sometimes serve as a child’s only nourishment of the day.
The institutions provide two daily hot meals, which sometimes serve as a child’s only nourishment of the day.
Enjoying good food and friendships in Moscow at the start of the school year.
Enjoying good food and friendships in Moscow at the start of the school year.
The school system includes schools, kindergartens, afternoon and Sunday schools, as well as six higher-education institutes.
The school system includes schools, kindergartens, afternoon and Sunday schools, as well as six higher-education institutes.
A festive atmosphere in Russia as families begin another year of learning.
A festive atmosphere in Russia as families begin another year of learning.