The Once-Festive Sound of Ukraine’s Opening School Bells

Thoughts on opening the school year amidst the trauma and uncertainty 

Based on an article by Devorah Levenharts |

The first day of school was always a big deal in Ukraine, with parents, grandparents and well-wishers coming to watch their children begin another year of academics. But this year, seven months into a horrific and seemingly endless crisis, schools in Odessa, Zhitomer, Zhytomyr, Vinitsa, Bila Tserkva, Chernivtsi, Kamianske, Kryvyi Rih, and Cherkasy have opened, but without the usual fanfare.

Some schools are continuing to give classes online, serving students who remain scattered across continents and time zones.

In Eastern Kiev, commencement exercises at the Simcha School included an orientation tour of the freshly renovated and brightly appointed bomb shelter under the school’s colorful campus.

In other FJC and Chabad-Lubavitch ‘Or Avner’ schools in Ukraine, which have reopened in part with funding from the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU), local students have been welcomed alongside remote classmates on Zoom.

Some schools were unable to open at all.

The following account was written by Devorah-Leah Levenharts, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Kiev, following the emotional first day of school, Sept. 1, 2022:

KIEV—I’ve experienced it 24 times, since my husband and I first came to Kiev, where we lead the Shimcha School and a beautiful community in the eastern part of the city. Every year, on the first of September, I wish once again that the school year in Israel would open the way it opens here in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the opening day of the school year is a real holiday. Everyone troops in solemnly, dressed in white shirts, laden with bouquets the teachers, ready to celebrate the “first bell”.

Excited incoming 1st-graders ceremoniously march in as everyone – fellow students, parents, and guests – applauds them. The ceremony ends with the ringing of an ornate bell, and only then are the children dismissed to their classrooms. I have no doubt that this festive opening day affects the rest of the year, giving the feeling that every day you come to school is a holiday.

But today, in contrast to our long tradition, there was little celebration.

And instead of the 400 sweet students who had previously filled the school corridors with excitement, we opened the school year with only 150 students, hoping and praying for the Redemption and for the end of the war. We have no idea how the school year will end, but we can hope.

In the place of the celebration in the large courtyard, the students trained on what to do when the sirens go off.

During the summer, new shelters were built to accommodate the students. We equipped them with furniture so that the schooling can continue uninterrupted, and I hope they remain fresh, unsullied, and unused.

As in years past, students and their families came together for the first day of school, a usually festive occasion.

Don’t get me wrong. This was not a depressing day, by any stretch of the imagination.

The fact that the school year opened and that the students have arrived at the school building, which has been empty since the outbreak of the crisis, is a real celebration!

We have lost many students, who have gone to Israel and elsewhere. But we have also gained some students, refugees from Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson and Eastern Ukraine.

As emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who taught us to sacrifice for the good of others, we will celebrate the very fact that our school has opened, that Jewish life continues to thrive here in Kiev. We will celebrate the fact that despite the difficulty of coming from neighborhoods all over the city, the parents did not give up on giving their children a Jewish education. We will celebrate the fact that we remained steadfast despite the stormy winds. As the Rebbe taught us, educating the younger generation is the promise of the Jewish future.

Even though we did not ring the opening bell this year, we did blow the shofar loud and clear for parents and children to year, as we do every year.

The Jewish year of 5783 is upon us, and we pray to G‑d that it will be a good and sweet year, a year of peace, and a year of Redemption!

As he has done every year for the past 24 years, Rabbi Mordechi Levenharts blows the shofar for parents and students on the first day of school

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