The President of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, has opened a new building in Riga for the Dubnov Jewish School, which is part of the ORT schools network in the region.
World ORT has installed state-of-the-art ICT, science and robotics laboratories at the school whose new building has been magnificently restored thanks to nearly $2 million of public funds.
“For Latvia to spend this kind of money on facilities for 200 Jewish students is unprecedented,” said World ORT’s Chief Programme Officer, Vladimir Dribinskiy. “The media attention paid to this event was like nothing I have ever seen before.”
President Zatlers lit a candle on the Chanukah menorah and addressed the opening ceremony. “The opening of each new school is special, because school is where our future begins,” he said. “This is a special day, because the Jewish high school is being opened in a new building. I think that it is very important that this building was put up specifically as a school, and it will now be used by generation after generation.”?
Also at the ceremony was World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer, who said: “Chanukah is a time of miracles. But we Jews know that miracles don’t come without hard work. We deeply appreciate the hard work done by the Government, the municipality, the Jewish community and ORT professionals and supporters to make this happen.”
Two years ago, in what was seen at the time as serious recognition of its achievements, President Zatlers became Latvia’s first head of state to visit the school, which in 1989 became the first new Jewish school to open in the territory of what was the Soviet Union since 1940.
Until now, the school’s primary and secondary students were housed in separate, unsuitable buildings in sites poorly served by public transport.
“It is a good school which has been supported by ORT for more than 15 years. But its inconvenient location, poor facilities and the difficulties created by the lack of unification caused by multiple sites meant that it was struggling for survival in the face of emigration and assimilation experienced by an already small community,” said Mr Dribinskiy.
The Jewish community has steadily shrunk since 1970, from 37,000 to approximately 10,000 today. However, at the time of President Zatlers’ first visit, the school was managing to increase enrolment as World ORT, with the financial backing of the Clore Duffield Foundation and other donors, provided ICT support, educational resources and teacher training which helped it to rise up the rankings to become the 10th best school in Riga.
The high level of English and Maths teaching and the quality of the Hebrew and Jewish learning not only made it the school of choice for Jewish families in Riga, they attracted the children of families who had returned to Latvia since it joined the European Union.
“The newly renovated, centrally located school is absolutely outstanding and it will give the community another boost,” said Mr Singer. “Our aim is to make the school a centre of excellence, to make it the best school in the country within the next few years and increase the number of students by well over 50 per cent. In so doing, there is a very good chance that the school will also become economically self-sufficient.”
The high-tech laboratories installed by World ORT have, in themselves, put the school in a league of its own.
“There is nothing even close in any other school in Latvia,” Mr Singer said. “We want to make Dubnov Jewish School a centre of advanced teacher training in ICT, science and technology for teachers from across the country.”
It would, no doubt, have made Shimon Dubnov, the famed author of the 10-volume World History of the Jewish People , and after whom the school is named, proud given his personal commitment to modernising Jewish education.
Mr Dribinskiy said: “The new building is an amazing project, the result of fruitful cooperation between the national and city governments and the Jewish community; ORT is happy to be instrumental in the school’s further transformation. The importance of maintaining a successful Jewish school is seen as no less important by the state authorities as by the community or us.”
Both Mr Singer and Mr Dribinskiy paid tribute to Riga’s dynamic young mayor, Nils Ušakovs, and the Chairman of the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, Arkady Suharenko, for their outstanding contributions to realising the project.
“This new school is the realisation of a dream long-held by Mr Suharenko whose skilled, visionary leadership of the community has already seen the accomplishment of another goal “ﾓ the renovation of the city’s historic synagogue,”? Mr Singer said.
And at the opening ceremony, Charge d’affaires at the Israeli Embassy, Naftali Tamir, read out a letter of congratulations from the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.
ORT has a long history in Latvia, starting in 1906 with the funding of the Dvinsk Jewish trade school. In the 1920s, ORT-supported vocational schools, training courses, shops and patronates operated in Daugavpils, Riga and Lubny. Support grew to counter the effects of the nationalist authoritarian government in the 1930s and continued until ORT institutions were nationalised by the Soviets in 1941.