Scholarships Give Greece’s Jewish Children Second Chance at J-School

March 19, 2012


Since closing the doors of the family clothing business in Athens for good last year, Rafail, 58 has had to count every Euro. Unable to afford the mortgage or sell the house, he and his wife, Sara were forced to cut spending back to a near halt—including pulling their small children, Lela, 10, and Moni, 6, out of Athens’ Jewish Community School.

As Greece’s sovereign debt crisis turns into a full-fledged domestic economic emergency, the skyrocketing unemployment and small business bankruptcy rates are rattling families throughout the country. Rafail and Sara are among hundreds of families in the Jewish community making heartbreaking decisions just to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

The Greek Jewish community, consisting of some 5,000 Jews, operates synagogues, a Jewish school, a cultural center, and a soup kitchen to aid the most vulnerable members of their community. But with the country’s dire financial situation, the majority of Jewish communal institutions are struggling to stay afloat.

Many members of the Greek Jewish community are now unemployed and falling below the poverty line; people who were once the community’s steadfast supporters are now turning to the community for help.

Not long ago, Rafail was an important donor and offered his support to his children’s school. A keystone of the Athens Jewish community, the J-school offers the full curriculum of the Greek Ministry of education, as well as Hebrew and Jewish History. There’s a pre-school day-care for kids starting at age 2.5. Kids begin learning Hebrew in kindergarten; they study Judaism and Jewish history from first grade on, and celebrate and visit Israel. “Our aim is to make each student feel connected to the Jewish community and understand his/her role in it,” says Principal George Kanellos.

“When kids graduate from our school they can communicate in Hebrew; they know about our traditions, our religion, and our history,” he said.

Jewish education is even more essential in small communities like Greece’s, he argues. “Where we live it is very hard to preserve Jewish life. It is not just the learning at our school that is essential. The contact with other Jewish families and the deep friendship bonds that are created here are invaluable. The school cements ties within the community, which is like an extended family.”

The community was shocked to learn that Lela and Moni had to leave the school, and they came together to offer the children full scholarships. In these toughest of times, a special emergency grant from JDC for welfare and tuition assistance enables the community to extend a lifeline to families like this one.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories