By Mario Izcovich

Change is in the air for European Jewish schools, particularly when a group of 30 principals from across Europe gathers in Helsinki to learn firsthand about what is ostensibly the best educational system in the world.

The mission was organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, hosted by the Jewish Community of Helsinki and participants came from the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK. In their seminar evaluations more than 50 % of the participants found the mission had exceeded their expectations and the rest said that it had met theirs. Around 70 % were extremely satisfied with the experience and 30% very satisfied.

Everyone has agreed that among the highlights of the very intensive trip was to see the flexibility in how teachers adapt the lessons and learning spaces to each kid. Children work in small groups all over the campus and often go on outings. Lessons do not only take place with students sitting in classrooms all day long. Children have much more autonomy and they are at the very center of an active learning process

The conference included visits to four schools (including the Jewish one) and sessions with keynote speakers on education and psychology as well as Finnish authorities.

The Finnish educational system’s approach to the learning process really impressed and inspired everybody. This idea was best captured when a participant reflected that the challenge is “Teaching towards future vs. teaching based on the past.” While the system strives for excellence in education the main theme is not competition but cooperation. Evaluation is not as important as it is in other Western countries. And last but not least, there are two words that were repeated the most: trust and wellbeing.

Trust should be encouraged among children, parents and teachers. Everybody’s wellbeing matters.

During the mission we also had the opportunity to learn about and discuss the situation of Jewish schools in Europe. We observed some critical issues:

One is the lack of human resources. There are few well prepared teachers, particularly those teaching Jewish topics. Jewish identity at schools is perceived as primarily a religious identity and not much else. In many communities, there is a paradox with respect to the one Jewish school, where critical mass is scarce, and the environment is very endogamic, like a family. When students become teenagers they need to “leave” home.

In other words, they don’t find the school meaningful any more. This is also happening in the youth movement. So, although Jewish education is a way to promote the continuity of Jewish people, it seems that the way Jewish schools perform does not necessarily foster that continuity.

After this enlightening experience, most of the principals plan to make small and important changes in the way they lead their schools.

Here are some comments from the participants:

Thank you all for making my first visit to Helsinki a memorable one. I have arrived home feeling inspired and excited about opportunities that are ahead (Ruth Gafson, UK)

A conference like this is a fantastic way to refill our batteries as educators, as people feeling responsible for European Jewry, and as human beings in general. (Marcell Kenesei, Centropa, Hungary)

This was an amazing opportunity to share the experience of Jewish education and see the advanced educational technologies Finnish school. Excellent organization and rich program of the seminar allowed to immerse in the friendly atmosphere of the international communication and learn a lot. I am convinced we are waiting for a time of change and development of Jewish education in Russia (Leonid Pashton, Russia)

Thank you all for sharing such a deep knowledge and passion in our mission to Helsinki and in our schools! I’m eager to share with my colleagues here at home my experience and already planned an afternoon together, to start visualizing different solutions to our daily issues. (Diana Segre, Italy)

I hope new collaboration projects between different schools will arise from this trip. Nice to see and work with like-minded people from different countries. I look forward to further cooperation. (Liliia Komissarenko, Russia).

It is crucial to share and be involved in the building of the Jewish School of tomorrow (Helene Zrihen, France)

Today we are witnessing major changes in the way schools are functioning and Jewish schools need to be in the front!

Mario Izcovich is Director of Leatid.

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