Twin second-graders at Djerba’s Kanfei Yonah School; photo courtesy JDC

By Seymour Epstein

On Sunday the thirteenth of Sivan, David Kiddushim z’l was laid to rest in Jerusalem. Most Jewish educators around the world would not know of this remarkable soul from the Tunisian island of Djerba. But my work in North Africa with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gave me the great privilege and honour to meet David and his wife Tzivia when they were at the height of their educational activity.

David received a typical boy’s education in Djerba as he grew up in the first half of the twentieth century. He would have attended a yeshiva that taught Chumash and Gemara from the Hebrew and Aramaic to Tunisian Arabic. He probably picked up a bit of French and enough general education for an isolated Jewish life on the island. No secular subjects were taught in the yeshiva ever since a nineteenth century ban on such instruction was instituted as a response to the failed attempt by the Alliance Israelite Universelle to establish a school on the island. He would also have been exposed to the long and glorious history of Djerban Jews, an ancient, still thriving community over 2000 years old.  He lived in Hara Kebira, one of two communities on the island. His Hebrew was textual, used only for study and prayer. When he met Tzivia the only language they could communicate with was their native dialect of Arabic, since Djerban girls did not go to school.

In the forties a Palestinian Jewish soldier of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade ended up on Djerba, and when David met him he was astounded to hear spoken Hebrew for the first time. He was overwhelmed by the experience, both linguistically and spiritually. He decided to learn what was then Palestinian/Yishuv Hebrew, and soon became the Eliezer Ben-Yehuda of Djerba! He wanted to teach his new language, but realized that given the rabbinic authority in Djerba, it would not be possible to alter the curriculum of the yeshiva. So, he opened Djerba’s first school for girls, Torah v’Chinuch. At first, only limudei kodesh were taught, but completely in Hebrew. By the fifties he received texts from the Israeli mamlachti dati curriculum. In this he was supported by a JDC worker, Stanley Abramovitch, who became a close friend of both David and Tzivia. In time, David decided to add some general subjects such as arithmetic, geography, and history to the course of studies since the rabbinic ban applied only to boys. For these additions, new texts were again supplied by the JDC, all in Hebrew. Once a pre-school was established, JDC’s early education expert, Evelyn Peters, came on the scene with her valuable experience and knowledge. What came of all this was the only Hebrew Immersion school outside of Israel, parallel to the pre-war Tarbut schools in Poland. And in an ancient community isolated on a Tunisian island!

The enormity of David Kiddushim’s work was evident when I started visiting the island in the eighties. Several generations of women had passed through the schools. The teachers who supplemented David and Tzivia in the school were products of Torah v’Chinuch. Most received some training abroad, but returned to the island to marry, have many children, and continue teaching.  When one entered a home in Hara Kebira, it was the mother who spoke Hebrew, proud of her connection to both ancient Djerba and the conversational version of an ancient language. While most of the men had enough general knowledge to be involved in the occupation of choice, jewellery manufacture and sales, it was the women who had received a full education. And all in Hebrew!

As impressive as David Kiddushim’s work was, even more astounding is its future now that he is gone. A few years ago, two of his graduate teachers realized that this day would come and established a new school called Kanfei Yonah (see Psalms 68:14) where the Kiddushim curriculum has been expanded and enhanced, still completely in Hebrew. It is a wonder to enter the school and hear only Hebrew from children and teachers whose street and home language is Arabic.

This phenomenon, unique anywhere else in Diaspora Jewish education is all the inspired work of one teacher, David Kiddushim z’l. May his memory become blessings for all of us who toil in the work he so loved.

Dr. Epstein (Epi) has been active in every aspect of Jewish education, formal and informal. He worked at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto and helped to found an experimental high school there in 1971. From 1973 to 1978 he was an assistant professor at McGill University where he directed the Jewish Teacher Training Program of Montreal. He was actively involved in Camp Ramah and directed the Canadian Ramah for three summers. In 1981 Dr. Epstein moved to Morocco to become the educational consultant for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Casablanca. During his eighteen years of JDC work, he was active in Morocco, Western Europe, and the Former Soviet Union. He served the JDC as Director of Jewish Education and was responsible for community development in Siberia, Russia. For the ten years from 1999 to 2009 Epi was the director of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education at UJA Federation. In 2009 his first book, “From Couscous to Kasha: Reporting From the Field of Jewish Community Work,” was published by Urim Publications. His next book, “The Esther Scroll: Rifacimento Undone,” is soon to be published. Epi is now consulting in the field of Jewish education.