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[Page 176]

Chapter 3

Jewish Education


Zionism in Bălţi

by Y. Mazor

Translated by Ben Zion Shani


Jewish education in Bălţi is worthy of a monument for the gratitude of its graduates who would eventually have the privilege of making Aliyah, as a direct product of this education.

Many are the protégés of the Jewish education in Bălţi, some of whom completed a trajectory to Zionist fulfillment from pioneering settlement in exhausting working conditions, to participation and self–sacrifice in the struggle to free the land of its foreign rulers, in the War of Independence. Others experienced years of exile and deportation in the detention camps and prisons of the British Mandate, or battling the Nazi enemy, either within the ranks of the Allied Forces or the Jewish Brigade, within the ranks of the Red Army, or as Jewish Partisans; some of those experienced the ghettos of Transnistria or were exiled to Siberia. A few reached the safe haven of their homeland and they would go on to become educators, academics, authors and critics, doctors and engineers, people of enterprise in agriculture, trade, and industry, and through diligence and perseverance have made respectable achievements. A few have served officially as diplomatic, economic, and military delegates. The near total enthusiasm that grips those who attend reunions of Hebrew Gymnasium graduates or former members of the youth movements of Bălţi, is evidence of the powerful bonds to the past, to the profoundness of the influence of the Jewish and Zionist education. The emphasis they put on their roots, and their nostalgic view of the past [Translator's note: there is a typographical error in the Hebrew–התפרקות instead of התרפקות.], attest to the depth of their connection to their Beltsian past. It is our duty to memorialize in writing this heritage, the sources from which it drew, and the Zionist consciousness which brought about the fulfillment of our goal–the establishment of the State of Israel.

Let us hope that this written memorial will serve as witness to the generations to come, as to how important Jewish education was to this little community, thanks to whose own efforts we have achieved the results that have brought us here.


Jewish Education in Bălţi

In retrospect, one can view Jewish education in the town of Bălţi as a mission fully accomplished. I would say that this system functioned to perfection, and could serve, even now, as an example to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, of Jewish–Hebrew–Secular as well as Zionist education.

This success can be explained by a number of factors:

  1. This community had the good fortune that it just happened to have within it wonderfully dedicated educators, role models, educators the likes of: Reidel, Schwarz, Schuster, Weinstock, Tzesis, Dubinovsky, Langerman, Bord, Kilimnik, Kupferstein, and so on.
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  1. People of action and initiative within the community, with an awareness for Jewish education. Figures such as: Mendel Massis, Dr. Vesterman, Avraham Gefter, Leivush Golobati, Eng. Yerachmiel Jaffe, Gedalia Lipson, Hersch Auerbuch, and others. Bălţi had academics, who did not assimilate like most of the Jewish Intelligentsia in Czarist Russia, whose concern was Jewish education–specifically in its Hebrew form–and even though not all of them were Zionists, they viewed the existence of a Hebrew educational format as an educational primacy.
  2. The good economic situation of a broad stratum of the Jewish population, which made it possible to raise the resources necessary for establishing and maintaining the Jewish education system.
  3. Lastly, and possibly most importantly: the body of Jewish parents, who specifically wanted Hebrew education for their children, preferring it to the Yiddish or general Romanian, and were prepared to put in the effort and make the sacrifices. The Jews in Bălţi were required often to deduct from their meagre income in order to pay tuition, which was relatively hefty for the times, for a son or a daughter, or even several children at once, to enable them to continue attending the Hebrew School. Moreover, people were forthcoming when it came to assisting those in poverty, through special assistance funds for covering tuition for the underprivileged.
Paradoxically, I must admit, the positive attitude of the government towards Jewish education, which also manifested itself in budgetary assistance, also contributed to the success of the Jewish education enterprise in Bessarabia. Behind their willingness to assist, lay the government's intent to de–Russify this province, and divert the danger of Communist influence from Jewish youngsters.

The Hebrew school in Bălţi, both elementary and secondary, conformed to, and implemented the ideology of Tarbut, the educational branch of the Zionist movement. It completely fulfilled the principles of the doctrine of comprehensive Jewish education in the diaspora, as envisioned by the founding fathers of Zionism.

Prof. Zevi Scharfstein, a scholar in the study of the history of Jewish education, in his book History of Jewish Education in Modern Times (in Heb., Ogen, NY, 1949) [Translator's note: This book came out in 1945, and would then be followed by a “ + Vol. II” (in 1947) and “ +Vol. III” (in 1949). The writer gives the title of the 1945 one, but cites the year as 1949. So, not really sure about how to cite the title of this book (i.e. amend the title, or amend the year). Left as is for now.], p. 25, expresses the approach that mandated the teaching of all subjects, not just Judaic studies, in Hebrew, as preached by one of the advocates of a national school, Z. Jabotinsky, opposing those who favored teaching the scientific subjects in foreign languages, led by “Aḥad Ha'am” (Asher Ginsberg). Jabotinsky was among the architects of Tarbut and on its behalf he would lecture all over the Jewish Diaspora about national Jewish education. On one of his lecture tours he visited Bălţi, in 1912, and this visit laid the foundations for comprehensive Jewish education.

Tarbut curricula maintained the study of the maximum of general subjects in Hebrew, rather than just Judaic subjects, Hebrew language, and Jewish history: as the language in which a child is taught all subjects is the device that trains the child to think and feel.

This operation was not an easy one, but the persistence and dedication of the Hebrew school trustees, in the framework of the expansive activities of Tarbut, and with its support, made it possible to execute this noble idea. Prior to the activity by Tarbut there were several attempts, such as the “Talmud Torah” school of 135 students, as mentioned in the press as early as 1898.

In the two–volume study by David Vinitzky [Translator's note: there is a typographical error in the Hebrew–דור instead of דוד.], The Jews in Bessarabia; Between the World Wars 1914–1940 we are informed that by the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, in most cities and townships in Bessarabia there were already special schools teaching Jewish children in Russian, besides the state public schools. This was a further progression and development of the “revised Cheider”, which was already a revolutionary idea in Jewish education and its “traditional Cheider”.

At the second Conference of Jewish Teachers in 1918, a rift developed between proponents of Yiddish and proponents of Hebrew. Slowly but surely, the influence of the Yiddishists declined under Romanian rule. The parents' committees everywhere were actually inclined towards Hebrew schooling, and the gradual elimination of the Yiddish–speaking school did not take long. Mere remnants of it survived in a few elementary schools, where Yiddish was also taught as a second language. For example, in the Talmud Torah in Bălţi, Mr. Weinstock also taught Yiddish during certain years in the 1920's.

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“The Jews of Bessarabia”, wrote Vinitzky, “most of whom adhere to Jewish tradition and have ingrained in them a national awareness, were not eager to send their children to a school offering very little national content and detached from the nation's sources.” Following the formation of the Ḥibbat Tzion movement,[1] and later, the establishment of the Zionist movement, Jewish education was now being emphasized everywhere. Wherever a Zionist association was formed, it endeavored to influence the educational policies, through local institutions as well as at the state level. The Hebrew language became a central subject, and national education a goal unto itself.

Ironically, the greatest positive change occurred as the revolution broke out, because it declared liberty for individual nations and enabled minorities to maintain their own educational institutions, teaching strictly in their own national language.

In August of 1917, in Kishinev, a conference was held, for teachers and public functionaries to lay out the new fundaments for Jewish education in Jewish, as well as non–Jewish schools. Alas, the language problem arose immediately, as the Yiddshists and the Bundists demanded that the official teaching language be Yiddish, as the national language. Moreover, it had been the intent of the revolutionists to allow the masses and the minorities the right to teach their children in their own national language, and the spoken language in most of the Jewish environment was Yiddish. This was the famous “War of the Languages”, which had begun at the turn of the century and which came to a head at the famous Czernovitz Conference (Aug. 30–Sept. 3, 1908).

The non–Zionists had the upper hand and with a majority of two–thirds a resolution was passed whereby, “recognizing that teaching in the national school is to be conducted in the mother tongue of the students, it is the finding of this conference that in the Jewish schools in the lands of liberty as well, it is imperative that teaching be conducted in the mother tongue of the students, Yiddish.”

However, it was also determined that the teaching of Hebrew language and literature, as an important element of Jewish culture, must be given prominence in the Jewish school at all levels. A supreme administration was elected, named “The Yiddish School Commission”–In Hebrew it was called “The Hebrew Scholastic Committee”–which received official state approval as a special department under the Education Directorate.

This was immediately following the revolution when, for a brief period of time, Bessarabia enjoyed a sort of autonomy, until the Romanians seized power.

With the annexation of Bessarabia to Romania, the new administration also adopted the policy whereby minorities were given the right to administrate their own schools, in their own language. The new administration had an interest in de–Russification and, therefore, encouraged the establishment of schools in minority languages, as the first step in “Romanianization”.

On August 14, 1917, a royal proclamation was made, that the king has recognized also the right of the Jewish minority to have their children educated in state public schools in their own national language. That which had been achieved by the Russian revolution, would continue through with the Romanians. This right became internationally binding in accordance with the Versailles Treaty of December 9th, 1919, and on October 20th, 1920, Romania committed to honoring the rights of the minorities within its borders. The government reiterated this commitment on March 26th, 1923, in an explicit statement during parliament deliberations into the formulation of the constitution. According to articles 9 and 10, minorities may establish, administrate, or supervise, at their own expense, charity and relief institutions, schools, or educational institutions in their own language, and to freely practice their religious rituals.

The Romanian government promised to grant appropriate provisions in elementary schools for teaching the children of Romanian subjects whose language is not Romanian, in their own language. The government also promised that an equitable share of sums designated for public funds, government budgets, and municipal councils, be allocated to the education, religion, and social assistance of minorities.

Several factors, internal as well as external, motivated the Romanian government during the first four years of the establishment of its administration of Bessarabia, to implement liberal policies towards the Jewish minority while recognizing its national language as an official teaching language in schools.

However, apparently, one of the reasons was a shortage of Romanian language teachers, since following World War I, Romania became a country of 17.5 million, as opposed to 7.7 million before the war, it was not long

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before Romanian authorities began to renege on their commitments, and beginning in 1922, began to inundate national educational institutions with directives and restrictions.

Their aim was to fully impose the Romanian language upon all educational and academic institutions, and to nullify the independence of the Jewish schools. Moreover, the entire Jewish community in Bessarabia at large appeared to the authorities as having been infected with equality and national liberty, an inheritance from the Russian revolution, and clearly would have to be forcibly disillusioned of these fantasies. Then minister of education, Dr. Constantin Angelescu, of the Liberal Party government that succeeded the Gen. Averescu administration, implemented a total shift with regards to the rights of national minorities, Jews among them. He was outstanding in his hatred of the Jews, and treated them with incivility.

The directives he implemented were:

  1. Mandatory testing before government representatives, every year beginning with 1st grade.
  2. Implementation of a system of mandated Romanian studies, something Hebrew teachers were neither able nor qualified to undertake.
  3. Cancellation of certification exams for uncredentialed teachers.
  4. Extending the government curriculum practiced in old Romania to the newly acquired regions under the patronage of Romania, in spite of the fact that it was unsuitable to the realities therein.
The Hebrew teachers in Bălţi were active in Tarbut since its inception. They participated in every Tarbut conference, and they were among the architects of Jewish education in all of Bessarabia. Outstanding in this activity was educator Yaakov Reidel.

Reidel was an educator personified, a teacher par excellence, a man of great pedagogic skill. in the absence of Hebrew text books for the general studies, along with the pioneer of Jewish education in Bessarabia, Wasserman, he undertook the compilation of text books that proved themselves for years, and upon which were reared a generation of students of Bessarabia Hebrew schools. Reidel represented Bălţi at the Tarbut conference of September 5th, 1922 in Kishinev, and was elected to the conference directorate.

This conference set out to summarize four years of Tarbut activity and the existence of the Hebrew school. This was the golden era of the Hebrew school in Bessarabia, which flourished between 1922–1933. Then began the decline. Objective difficulties arose: the authorities became a nuisance, not every Hebrew school established was able to sustain itself, and even the young generation began leaving the rural communities and moving to the city to study.

This is also the period of time during which the Hebrew Gymnasium expands and absorbs students from the frontier towns, from places where previously, Hebrew elementary and secondary schools existed. Tarbut schools, first and foremost, emphasized Hebrew as a primary directive. Tarbut incorporated the study of Hebrew into curricula to the extent of a comprehensive educational method for Jewish youth, administered by the Hebrew teacher. “It had a clear purpose and a deliberate goal, and the underlying principle of aspiring to Zion”, writes Vinitzky, Tarbut secretary in Bessarabia, in his book The Jews in Bessarabia; Between the World Wars 1914–1940. Jewish children were taught already in kindergarten, to sing the songs of the Land of Israel, to become familiar–albeit at a distance–with the way of life in the Land of Israel, through the use of various teaching devices, images and films, but primarily the use of materials supplied by the JNF.[2]

The textbooks as well, were characteristically Zionist. These were books designed to teach the Hebrew language. The vast majority of the Hebrew teachers were affiliates of the permanent councils for the JNF, locally as well as at the central Pan Bessarabia level.

In spreading the Zionist idea through the schools, and in attracting the youth to participate in activities on behalf of the JNF, whether in fund raising (The Blue Boxes) or various collections, the JNF employed the assistance of emissaries from the land of Israel. Massively successive were the visits to Bessarabia by author Nathan Bistritzky (Agmon).

In 1936 a difficult time for Romanian Jewry begins, and this also affects the Hebrew schools. In 1938–1939 restrictions on Zionist activity come into effect. Antisemitism manages to attain official approval.

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The Goga–Cuza Government, although short–lived, issued all manner of edicts and directives, all geared at disrupting normal life for the Jews, in finance, culture, and education.

Martial Law is enacted, Jewish newspapers shut down, Heḥalutz is dismantled, and a prohibition is imposed on JNF fund raising. The Hebrew school fought for its life and endeavored to adapt to the changing realities. These times, of persecution of Jewish students in public schools, cause an increase in the tendency of youngsters to be apply to the Hebrew school, the Hebrew Gymnasium. Indeed, I should note with some satisfaction that while in most places, the Hebrew elementary and secondary schools were shutting down, the Hebrew schools in Bălţi were able to maintain their educational activity, nearly uninterrupted, and prepare scores of students to pass their matriculation exams, en route to acceptance to universities. Although, few of them intended on continuing their studies in Romanian universities, who, by the way, had almost completely restricted the percentage of Jewish students. Some of the Hebrew school graduates make Aliyah, and there are those among them who continue their studies in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or the Technion in Haifa, and even those who would eventually join the faculties of the universities in Israel.

World War II breaks out; Hitler takes over Europe.

Calamity approaches Bessarabia as well, although people refuse to believe that the disaster could occur and that the antisemitic threats will come true.

In 1940 Bessarabia is annexed by the Soviet Union and Jewish education is cut down at its peak.

In 1941 Germany and the Soviet Union are at war, bringing about the total annihilation of Bessarabia Jewry. The Jewish community of Bălţi is cut down, as are all Jewish communities in Bessarabia. Brought to an end is the Jewish education and the national cultural enterprise.

Only the remnants, former students of the Hebrew schools in Bălţi, elementary schools, secondary schools, as well as ORT, brands plucked out of the fires, arrive at the shores of the homeland. Others emigrate to North and South America countries. Wherever graduates of the Hebrew school settled down, they continued to bask in the light of the Jewish education they received in their youth in Bălţi, a center of Judaism, out of existence.

Details of the magnitude of Jewish education in Bălţi, are found in a 1931/32 report submitted by the Tarbut center to the World Hebrew Union. See following page:

Source: “List of Hebrew schools and their budgets for the scholastic year of 1931/31” in David Vinitzky, The Jews in Bessarabia; Between the World Wars 1914–1940, 1973, Zionist Library (Jerusalem) and “Scrolls of Bessarabia” (Tel Aviv), Vol. II, p. 600b.

For comparison, note that according to that same report, the Hebrew schools in Kishinev had 979 students, i.e., 12.5% more, while the population of Kishinev that year was 41,405, whereas that of Bălţi was 14,259.

Just how central Bălţi was to the struggle for Jewish education, we can infer from a news item about a day of sit–ins and demonstrations for Jewish education, initiated by the Hebrew Gymnasium faculty and a number of Zionist functionaries,[a] and one about a convention of Hebrew school teachers that passes a resolution to install a seven–member pedagogic committee, with Bălţi as its central location, and whose members include Bord, Kilimnik, and Kupferstein that will determine a minimal curriculum for the teaching of Hebrew in the schools in that country.[b]

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An Analytical Curriculum for Seven Grade Jewish Elementary Schools Established by Tarbut of Bessarabia

Formulated by the Tarbut Center Pedagogic Committee 5687 1926

A List of Classes and the Number of Weekly Periods

Grade 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. Hebrew Language 11 10 6 6
2. Bible 2 4 4 4 1⅓
3. Jewish History 2 2 11½ 11½ 11½
4. Aggadah 1 1
5. Mishna 2
6. Religion 2 2 1 1 2 1 1
7. Mathematics 5 4 1 1 2 1 2
8. Science 2 2 2 2 2
9. Geography 1 2 2 2 2 2
10. Geography of Israel 1
11. Jurisprudence 1 1 1
12. Hygiene 1 1 1
13. Penmanship 1 1 1
14. Romanian Language 3 4 6 6
15. Romanian History 1 2 2
16. Art 1 1 1 1 1 1
17. Song 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
18. Crafts 2 2 2 2 5 5 5
19. Physical Education 2 2 2 2 1 1 1
Total 26 31 33 33 48 43⅓ 45⅓


  Grades Teachers Boys Girls Total Budget
(in IL)
Hebrew Gymnasium Preschool 1 1 18 13 31 35,000
Hebrew Gymnasium Elementary 4 8 53 39 92 255,000
Hebrew Gymnasium for Boys 7 23 176   176 855,000
Hebrew Gymnasium for Girls 7 25   171 171 855,000
Upper Talmud Torah 4 5 136 66 202 506,000
Lower Talmud Torah 3 5 117   117 216,000
Total   67 500 289 789  

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Jewish Education Characteristically Zionist by nature

The entire educational phase, from preschool, through elementary school, to the Hebrew Gymnasium years, lasted thirteen to fourteen years. Throughout this entire period, interwoven like the scarlet thread, was the cultivation of a love for the Hebrew language and a love for the Land of Israel. It was like a complete integration of Jewish education and Zionist education.

The general impression was that these educational institutions were guided by the Zionist movement. The Land of Israel was reflected in the daily life of these schools, especially around the national holidays and festivals, e.g., Hanukka Balls, Purim, Lag B'Omer trips to the village Natalievca or the Masada training farm. All teachers shared in educating to a love of the Jewish homeland. Even the teachers whose personal beliefs were opposed to Zionism, and they were but a few, became absorbed in the general atmosphere and had no choice but to nod in acceptance of the general Hebrew orientation and the Zionist spirit that prevailed within the school walls. The spirit of the school carried over to the lives of the students outside of the school, to the Jewish home, and to the Jewish milieu at large.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Ḥibbat Tzion, lit. “affection for Zion” was a precursor to the Zionist movement, established in the early 1880's in Russia, which advocated a return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Members of Ḥibbat Tzion, known as Ḥovevi Tzion, organized in local groups to prepare for a life of agriculture, to later found agricultural colonies in the land. Return
  2. JNF–Jewish National Fund–founded at the Fifth Zionist Congress, Basel, 1901, with the goal of collecting and raisings funds earmarked for the purchase of land in the Land of Israel. Return

Original footnotes:

  1. Unzer Zeit (in Yiddish), № 3790, May 24, 1935. Return
  2. Unzer Zeit (in Yiddish), № 4241, October 21, 1936, p. 4. Return


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