Feature Stories

Young Teacher Promotes Jewish Continuity in Ancient Community

At a JDC-supported girls' school in Zarzis, Tunisia, students get the unique opportunity to study Judaism, Torah, Talmud, and Hebrew.
At a JDC-supported girls' school in Zarzis, Tunisia, students get the unique opportunity to study Judaism, Torah, Talmud, and Hebrew. photo: Chrystie Sherman

Geula is 21, born and raised in Djerba, Tunisia, to a Jewish family whose roots here go back for centuries. But in the spirit of the times—and her country—she isn’t spending much time looking at the past. Instead, she sets her sights on her work as a teacher, equipping her female students with the tools to be the next link in the unbroken chain she believes makes her community special.

“I think it is very important to be a teacher. I see myself as a leader and a guide to my students,” says Geula. “Parents give life; teachers give knowledge. I take a lot of pride in fulfilling my role.”

Geula teaches at Torah v’Hinuch, the first Jewish girls’ school in Djerba that was founded in the 1950s. Today approximately 130 girls are enrolled in the school, where she teaches Judaism, Torah, Talmud, and Hebrew. Students attend class six days a week, getting time off only on Jewish calendar holidays; there is no summer vacation.

In the afternoons she works at Kanfei Yonah, a new, supplementary afternoon Jewish girls’ school where nearly 90 young women between the ages 8 and 18 study.

JDC, which has been operating in Tunisia since the 1950s aiding the community and providing care for the aged, sick, and poor, supports both schools where Geula works, as well as Jewish education in Tunis and Zarzis.

Because there is no formal training for teachers here, Geula researches everything that she wants to teach the girls on her own, consulting books, talking to people, and going online. Although she teaches all her subjects in Hebrew, Geula has to be prepared to discuss the finer points in Arabic, which is the mother tongue for her and her pupils. As a result, her classes are among the few in the world where subjects like the Talmud are studied in Arabic.

Geula herself attended the girls’ school as a child, and independently completed her high school diploma at the state school. That’s where she learned the foundations for the secular classes she teaches, which include Nature, Geography, and Grammar. Later, she passed the Jerusalem exam, a test given by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to help standardize the quality of Hebrew and Jewish education worldwide. Today she lectures on a variety of topics to ensure her students are schooled in both Jewish and secular subjects and prepared for whatever lies ahead.

As a Jew in a predominantly Muslim country, Geula says she feels “what I imagine every Jew in exile feels. We are fine, but we are in exile.” Recent turmoil in the state has not adversely affected the community. “It was quiet before and it is quiet now. But people are also asking themselves questions new questions, ‘What do we do next? Do we stay or do we go?’ There is an uncertainty that we haven’t felt before.”

Geula takes too much pride in her community to consider leaving. She adores her family, which she considers to include all of her fellow Jews in Djerba. “We are a really special community, a united community. We feel true solidarity because everyone follows Judaism and preserves the traditions. We’ve been here for 2,000 years and we continue to be here because we help one another.”

Geula also sees herself as a link to a larger, more international Jewish life. Recently, she brought her students into the Global Day of Jewish Learning, an event that raises a universal Jewish theme for discussion in communities worldwide. This year’s topic was the Sh’ma, Judaism’s most sacred prayer, and she included the topic in the girls’ lessons for a week before convening the group on the big day.

JDC supported the day of learning in communities across every continent to help ensure that the history, traditions, and culture each Diaspora Jewish community is so proud of get passed on to the next generation.

“My grandmother says when she was a child and many babies were dying in the community, JDC brought physicians and saved lots of children. In the days of my mother, JDC operated a canteen at the school where kids were ensured a daily meal. Today, we have food and doctors, so the JDC continues to help our youngsters by supporting our schools and education, which represent our community’s future.”

Tags for this story: Children, Education, Women, Youth / Young Adults

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