Jewish Education Under Attack: The Yael Foundation Conference in Cyprus Addresses The Challenge of Education For Jewish Children Around the World
The Yael Foundation held its first international conference last Monday in Paphos, Cyprus, in advance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Foundation provides support and aid for Jewish education, and is committed to preserving Judaism in every corner of the world, especially for Jewish children who attend non-Jewish schools.
Community rabbis, school principals, and professional educators from 28 countries and five continents attended the conference – a marathon of lectures and workshops given by veteran educators and professionals – to gain practical tools to use in their daily activities.
After an opening reception hosted by Yael Foundation Chairman Rabbi Shmuel Azman and CEO Eliezer Lesovoy, participants attended the first session, “Bringing Relatives Closer: the challenge of bringing together community members who don’t feel a sense of belonging.” The session focused on issues such as relationships with children who have drifted away from Judaism, and ways to ignite the desire to attend school and classes on Judaism. Participants described the daily educational challenges they face, and explored ways of improving traditional Jewish teaching practices using tools for 2023. There were also numerous brainstorming sessions throughout the course of the conference where participants shared ideas for improving methods and tactics.
On the second day of the conference, change management coach Idan Bitterman gave a workshop on professional development, personal communication styles, and ways to properly harness each style to create a productive and effective relationship with students.
The conference also offered Ted style lectures on a wide variety of topics: Rabbi Shmuel Kot, Estonia’s Chief Rabbi, spoke about the complex challenges of a mixed household and how to bridge the gaps. Elodie Marciano, founder of a project to transfer children into Jewish education programs in Paris, noted that only a third of Jews in France are educated in Jewish institutions, while the rest attend public, private and Catholic schools. This barrier is not just financial, she said, but is “geographical and psychological” as well. Approximately 5,000 children were transferred to a Jewish school thanks to the Yael Foundation’s support of the project.
Gal Greenwald, Chairman of Mizrachi’s national institutions and a conference partner, spoke about the importance of preserving Jewish identity in a world that blurs identities by leading a dialogue and strengthening the connection to the land of Israel. Rabbanit Tzippy Kozlovsky, Director of the Chabad day school in Tbilisi, Georgia, described using informal rather than formal education techniques, including creating a love of Judaism to prevent assimilation. Making the Biblical and Talmud language accessible was another topic led by Rabbi Moti Bigun, director of Ahli Yosef Yitzchak in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who presented a unique method he developed.
The conference ended with a gala evening celebrating and honoring the contributions of the many rabbis and Jewish educators around the world, specifically those teaching Jewish children at non-Jewish institutions. Rabbi Mendel Moskovitz, who arrived from the destroyed city of Kharkov, Ukraine, opened the evening with a video presentation of the Yael Foundation’s extensive activities since it was created in 2020.
“We find ourselves in the year of Hakhel, a time that couldn’t be more appropriate for our first conference,” Rabbi Azman noted, calling on those in attendance to “leave the confines to a broader space,” and bring along their institutions and communities. He movingly thanked the founders of the Yael Foundation, its partners and staff, who worked day and night to host a successful conference for the men and women “who do holy work every day” as Jewish educators.
There were additional remarks by Yaakov Hagoel, Chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Gal Grunwald, Eastern Chairman of the national institutions and conference partners. “We will improve Jewish education around the world,” said Yael Foundation CEO Lesovoy in an emotional speech. “Meeting all of you gives me strength to continue our work.”
Conference participants were treated to a taste of culture with a special performance by singer Shuli Rand, who thrilled the audience with his singing and dancing. Between songs, he shared educational insights and stories from his own childhood. Participants had an opportunity to mingle and share stories of their own activities and strengthen one another after the official program ended.
Lectures and workshops dedicated to improving and strengthening Jewish education around the world were held around the clock on the conference’s final day. Rabbi Schwicki, Director of the Buenos Aires Sephardic Maimonides School, spoke about fulfilling the educational mission from the perspective of a joyous life, or simchat chayim. The final professional sessions were given by Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky, Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, who spoke about the importance of long-term planning as a key to success.
That closing session, which lasted late into the night, dealt with ways to make Jewish education accessible with devotion while under attack. Rabbis from Ukraine shared the hardships they’ve experienced since the start of the war: students having to leave the classroom, having to deal with tragedies such as a classmate being killed, and how, despite everything, they maintained an educational continuum.
On the final morning, participants visited Jewish institutions in Larnaca, where they were greeted by Cyprus’ Chief Rabbi, Arie Zeev Raskin. They said their goodbyes and returned to continue their mission spread out among the four corners of the world: preserving the embers through Jewish education and tradition that was passed on for generations.