Size Matters

A Small Jewish Community with a Big Educational Impact

♦ by Raquel Katzkowicz

The Jewish community in Quito, Ecuador, has found an original formula for preserving its values in the conception of its day school: combining top-level education for all with a distinctly Jewish secular atmosphere.

The Einstein School in Quito, Ecuador, offers a unique model of a thriving Jewish school in a predominantly Catholic country with a small Jewish community. What characterizes our school is not so much its size (700 students) as its interest in offering an educational model based on cutting-edge methodology and research at the service of the larger Quito community. Our aim has been to achieve a quality secular education based on a set of values revolving around freedom, the quest for truth, respect for others, justice and peace, i.e., values closely aligned with those that Judaism has contributed to humanity.

Given the small number of Jews in Ecuador (currently about 600), the Einstein School, since its beginning, opened its doors to non-Jews, who have always accounted for a large majority (currently about 90%) of the student population. Today our classrooms are filled with students who are Jews, Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals, Baha’is and agnostics, within a climate of total respect and mutual enrichment. This means that, from the time they are very young, students are able to develop an open-minded attitude towards the ideas and contributions of others.

We believe that having opted to establish a school with a diverse population had less to do with sustainability and more to do with a decision, from the start, to celebrate diversity and tolerance and to contribute to international awareness. These are qualities that we have maintained and reaffirmed through the adoption of the three International Baccalaureate programs.

Background

Our school’s history dates back to an oral book-report contest held at another school in Quito, in which one of the students publicly denied the twentieth-century Holocaust and alleged that the concept had been “made up” by the Jewish people. This statement was received with indignation not only by members of the local Jewish community but also by the others in attendance. Even though a formal apology was issued by the school that had organized the event, members of the community deemed it necessary to establish a school based on the permanent pursuit of academic excellence and a framework of respect for diversity and the humanistic values of Judaism, a school open to children and young people without regard for nationality, race or religious creed.

Thus, a vital aspect in those initial stages was to consolidate a pedagogical proposal seeking excellence and incorporating the latest contributions to educational research. In the 1960s, Ecuador’s educational system was reformulated with the implementation of the First National Education Plan, which entailed the incorporation of modern teaching programs. In this framework, our school proposed an innovative academic system in which the students were the protagonists of the educational process, with the teachers guiding learning, encouraging students’ individual pursuit of knowledge and assessing according to each student’s particular way of learning. With regard to behavior policies, our school’s model from the beginning preferred reflection and respect towards others, with the idea of building upstanding, independent students aware of, and concerned about, themselves, others and their environments.

Alongside this focus on personalized instruction based on students’ experiences and using dialogue as a key aspect of education, it was considered important to create a bilingual school. A debate arose around whether Hebrew should be the second language, following the tradition of Jewish schools around the world. However, the final decision was to opt for English and to incorporate Hebrew and French as third languages.

Jewish Studies in the Curriculum

Our current curriculum combines the three International Baccalaureate programs (the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program and the Diploma Program) with requirements of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education and our Jewish studies curriculum.

All students have classes in Jewish culture from preschool through the twelfth grade. Using a non-religious approach, the subject content ranges from the history of the Jewish people, to traditions and celebrations, to current affairs in the Middle East. This helps Jewish students build their identity and non-Jewish students to understand the underpinnings of Judaic values in Western culture.

All students also have obligatory classes in Hebrew as a third language from preschool through third grade, after which they may opt to continue with Hebrew or to take French, thus giving them freedom to choose as a function of personal aptitudes and individual interests. Every year there are several non-Jewish students that choose Hebrew.

Through the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program and the Diploma Program, we encourage appropriation of the IB learner profile. Exposure to multiple cultures and different viewpoints through our curriculum supports the development of one of the key attributes: open-mindedness and an international mentality. This is complemented by the fact that we also have teachers from a variety of countries. Currently, 36 of our teachers are not from Ecuador, and this includes teachers that come from Israel (shlichim).

The international mentality is reinforced through a school calendar that celebrates all of the Jewish holidays (Luach Hashaná Haivri) and commemorates national holidays as well.

It is also worthwhile to note that, since we offer secular education, weekly religious instruction takes place through the Talmud Tora, under the supervision of the rabbi at the Jewish community center and synagogue complex, which is located just five blocks away from our school. It is there that our Jewish students also have access to activities and youth movements such as HaNoar HaTzioni.

Outreach

As an International Baccalaureate school offering all three programs, our school has hosted workshops on a number of occasions for participants from around the country and the region, and members of our staff have served as advisors for candidate schools and members of accreditation teams. However, our contribution to the larger educational community has also focused on issues of particular importance for Jewish schools. Some seven years ago, our school began working closely with representatives from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education and the local Jewish community to develop a unit on the Holocaust, human rights and recent genocides. This unit was officially adopted as part of the world history curriculum in high schools nationwide as of the 2008-2009 academic year and serves as the framework for research on these topics for annual competitions for both students and teachers. In October 2013 we also inaugurated our new library, which houses the Muñoz Borrero Center for Human Rights and Holocaust Studies and Research and provides resources for students and teachers from all over the country. This facility bears the name of an Ecuadorian consul who was named one of the Righteous among the Nations in 2011.

In addition, in collaboration with a local university, we have brought to Quito three Israeli Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics and one of the CERN researchers responsible for discovering the Higgs Boson. While here, they discussed their work with students, teachers and professors from the larger educational community and thus provided a unique opportunity for local educators to learn more about the caliber of science and technology in Israel and the level of entrepreneurship in the country.

Each year, 100% of our graduates go on to attend prestigious colleges and universities, and 65% of them study abroad. We are proud to contribute to the broader society students with concepts, attitudes and values that will allow them to appreciate and respect other cultures and other ways of thinking and, through an atypical hasbarah approach, to internalize and appropriate the dilemmas and issues that the Jewish people and the State of Israel have experienced in the past and are facing now and to be advocates for them, as well as for human rights in general.

Conclusion

With 40 years of experience, we receive visits from other small Latin American communities on a regular basis to study the way to teach Jewish culture to non-Jews within the framework of values education and an approach that is meaningful for families from all faiths. The impact of this effort on all of our students is evident whether they remain in Ecuador or go abroad. They are proof that a curriculum offering academic excellence and values education inspired by Jewish thought, history and culture can work very effectively for a heterogeneous population. ♦

Dr. Raquel Katzkowicz is a UNESCO and IB consultant, former principal of two Jewish schools in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Einstein’s head of school since August 2006. katzkowicz@einstein.k12.ec

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