Jewish students at Tbilisi’s Ohr Avner are getting a fresh start
by Dvora Lakein – Tbilisi, Georgia
AUGUST 29, 2019
It isn’t only a new school year for Tbilisi’s Jewish students. It’s an entirely new experience.
On September 16, the first day of the Georgian school year, 107 students will sit at their shiny new desks at Or Avner Kiryat Moshe. Dedicated in May, the 40,000 square foot campus boasts side by side kindergarten and elementary buildings. Over four floors, the $2.2 million building houses a science lab, computer hall, library, dining room, and 14 classrooms. A lush sports field sits alongside. The lot was donated by the government in appreciation of the fact that Or Avner is the only Jewish school in the country. “They recognize that Jews have lived here for 1,500 years and they want to keep our community,” says Rabbi Meir Kozlovsky.
Rabbi Meir and Tzippy Kozlovsky, who direct Chabad’s far-reaching operation for Georgia’s 4,000 Jews, moved to the capital in 2005. Their primary goal was to teach twenty-four children at the then-fledgling school. They moved from St. Petersburg to serve under the auspices of a senior Chabad couple. When their colleagues left for personal reasons, “suddenly, we were all alone, the only shluchim in the country,” recalls Kozlovsky. The couple threw themselves into their adopted community, organizing holiday events, massive Shabbat dinners for locals and tourists, and adult programming. And through it all, they continued their raison d’etre, teaching local kids, one aleph at a time.
Those lessons paid off. The Tbilisi Jewish community, once skeptical of a Jewish school’s value, stood proudly at its dedication ceremony and is eagerly signing up its children. Many parents who disliked the school’s previous rented digs, are excited to enroll. Supported in large part by Mikhail Mirilashvili, president of the European-Asian Jewish Congress, the building incorporates modern conveniences and technological advancements unusual in the country.
Elementary students have taken to their desks while their younger peers remain, for the year, in their rented location off-site. The project’s final phase is set for September 2020. Currently, some 50 percent of students switch to public schools after kindergarten (which is offered free at Or Avner unlike other schools). With the two schools in the same location, the Kozlovskys anticipate a greater number will remain through elementary school.
For those who do attend public school, the popular JFuture program, a supplementary Hebrew school for 150 kids aged five through 12 is expanding. Brunch, prayers, an art project and classes keep the children busy while their parents enjoy a simultaneous adult track. EnerJew is an exciting teen program featuring three-weekend retreats every year and weekly events. Both programs, as well as services and adult initiatives, will expand in the beautiful new campus.
With the elementary students firmly established in their new classrooms, it’s time to complete the kindergarten building. To that end, the Kozlovskys are gearing up for a massive fundraising effort to cover the half a million dollars required for completion.