Prague Jewish school celebrates its 25th anniversary

The Lauder School of Prague, the only Jewish educational institution in Czechia, is marking 25 years since its foundation this year. The school, which opened its first class in 1997, celebrated the anniversary this Thursday, on the occasion of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Photo: Ondřej Polák

The courtyard of Prague’s Jewish school in the Vinohrady district was packed on Thursday afternoon with dozens of current and former students, teachers and parents who came to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The Lauder School of Prague, which runs from kindergarten through high school, is part of a network of Jewish schools founded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in the 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe.

The first Czech class opened in 1997 with only seven pupils, and in the first few years of its existence, there were some doubts whether the project would be successful.

The Lauder School of Prague | Photo: Rodothe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Petr Karas, the school’s director, joined as a geography and history teacher already in 1999:

“We were worried, and I think quite rightly so. The number of children grew rapidly, that was not a problem, but it turned out the school didn’t really have a clear concept and it was unable to meet the different demands.

“After about five years, the school found itself in a crisis that looked really bad, but eventually we managed to find a solution and the school survived and continues to develop.”

Photo: Ondřej Polák

Today, says Mr Karas, the school’s philosophy is based on two main pillars: inclusiveness and a sense of community. The school, which once started with a handful of pupils, now has to turn them away due to lack of capacity.

Tereza Gafna Váňová is the school’s Deputy for Jewish Studies:

“I think, or at least I hope, that the fact there are so many parents who want their children to study in our school is a result of our continuous attempt to build the school as a community open to kids regardless of their abilities or disabilities or family background or Jewish roots. We simply try to be friendly and open to everybody and we try to make the best out of the potential of every single kid.”

Tereza Gafna Váňová | Photo: Bohumila Reková,  Czech Radio

While students at the Lauder schools do not have to be Jewish, most of them have a Jewish background and the school puts a strong emphasis on Jewish education and Hebrew, say Mrs Váňová:

“We don’t teach Judaism only as a religion, we want to teach it as a set of values, a way of life and also a strong awareness of belonging to a society.

“This is not that easily taught in a classroom. So therefore, like today, we try to organize many events, which are informal, which are outside the classroom and which promote the social ties among the students and the parents.”

Photo: Ondřej Polák

Among the many former students who came to celebrate the 25th anniversary on Thursday was Vratislav Freund, one of the first graduates of the Or Chadash high school. He says the decision to apply was his own and he has never regretted his choice:

“I am glad that I studed here. I met a lot of friends and I got more connected to the Jewish community. Also, because of this school, we had a chance to involve our parents, who were quite isolated from the Jewish life in the country because of the Communist regime. So it is an additional big bonus of attending the Jewish school!”