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Athens’ Jewish school, the community’s jewel, imperiled by Greek economic crisis

Kindergarten students in yellow caps run out into the school yard to rehearse for their end of year concert at the Athens Jewish Community School. (Gavin Rabinowitz/JTA)

ATHENS, Greece (JTA) – When the bell rang, the sixth-graders who had been playing basketball rushed off to a computer class. Their place in the yard at Athens’ Jewish Community School was taken by two dozen giggling 4- and 5-year -olds practicing dance steps for the year-end concert.

“One, two, three and turn,” the kindergarten teachers chanted as the kids, wearing yellow caps to protect them from the bright Greek sun,  jumped, stepped and shimmied through their complex routine.

The vibrancy reflects a remarkable renaissance Athens’ lone Jewish school has undergone in the last decade. With an enrollment rate of 70 percent of Athens’ Jewish children, it has a penetration rate that would be the envy of any American Jewish school.

The school’s success — which could hold lessons for Jewish schools elsewhere in the Diaspora — has been the result of heavy educational investments, an aggressive recruiting strategy, significant community subsidies, comprehensive busing and an open-minded enrollment policy for children of intermarried families.

But the school is now in peril as Greek Jews struggle through the economic and political turmoil roiling Greece.

A few years ago, the Athens Jewish Community School had reached a nadir. Since its founding in 1960, the number of children enrolled had been slowly dropping. By 2002, fewer than 80 students remained, and the leaders of the city’s small Jewish community debated whether their school was even viable anymore.

Community members believed that shutting the school down would have been an ominous development for the capital’s community of some 3,500 Jews.

“This school is the Athens Jewish community and its future,” said Alvertos Taraboulous, the current chairman of the school board.

Instead, they embarked on an ambitious and largely successful plan to revitalize the school. The concept was simple: To get as many children as possible to attend the school that runs up until 6th grade by providing top-notch private education, modern facilities and a warm environment — at an affordable price.

Realizing that many children did not attend because their parents were hesitant to uproot them after they became settled and made friends at local kindergartens, the Jewish school opened its own one in 2002, followed by a nursery in 2007.

“Now we see that if we get them into the kindergarten, they do not leave,” Taraboulous said. “If our children are really happy, that is the best promotion for the school.”

Aggressive recruiting bordering on chutzpah didn’t hurt either. When Jewish women give birth in Athens, the newborns are sent a gift basket with a note from the school that says “expecting you in two-and-a-half years.”

The school is also heavily subsidized by the Athens Jewish Community. Parents pay about $4,000 in tuition annually per child, compared to $10,000 to $14,000 at comparable private schools.

Two other steps were key to bringing in more students. The school opened admission to children of mixed marriages, and it operates an ambitious bus service that ranges all over Athens’ vast urban sprawl to bring Jewish kids to the school. Some commute from as far as 40 miles away.

“The bus fleet is crucial,” Taraboulous said. “Without this door-to-door service, many would not be able to come.”

This year, there were 136 children enrolled in the school (Full disclosure: this reporter’s daughter is one of them). Next year, 151 are registered, according to school principal George Kanellos.

The changes at the school seem to appeal to parents. Even though Zanet Battinou and her husband are both Jewish — she’s the director of the city’s Jewish museum, and he was a member of the school’s first-ever class — the decision to send their three children there had not been a no-brainer.

They shopped around Athens’ best private schools before making their decision.

“It turns out that it is a very good school, with teachers of the highest caliber,” Battinou said. “It’s very professional but also very warm.”

For other parents, the sense of community is the draw.

“There is something very special about bringing your children to a school where you went, where the other parents were your classmates. It is very comforting and intimate,” said Matilda Vital, a Hebrew teacher at the school, whose daughter is in the nursery program.

But now, the enormity of Greece’s economic and political crisis threatens to undermine the school’s success — even, possibly, its existence.

From Taraboulous’ office in downtown Athens — away from the leafy green suburb that houses the school — the signs of the country’s distress are everywhere: The mound of flowers marking the site where a pensioner shot himself in protest, roads closed by riot police ahead of protests, a homeless man begging for money to treat his brain tumor.

Every day, it seems, the distress of five years of a brutal recession, massive unemployment and harsh European-imposed austerity seeps deeper into all corners of the Jewish community.

“I have parents who can’t pay, or are missing or delaying payments,” Kanellos said. “In many houses now only one parent is working, or those who had their own companies have seen them close. The situation is very hard.”

Last year, only one child in the school received a full tuition subsidy. This year it’s seven. “The next few years will be worse,” Kanellos said.

The school has begun providing some children with clothes to wear to school celebrations and paying for outside therapy for children with learning disabilities.

Once-wealthy community members who used to pick up the slack now find themselves hard-pressed to pay for their own kids’ education.

“People who could afford more are asked to donate, but most of the big donors we had in the past are now bankrupt,” Taraboulous said. “They are totally broke.”

The official Jewish community organization, which provides 40 percent of the school’s budget, has seen its income drop sharply, too, in particular from rental properties the community owns. A few months ago, the community asked for help from Israeli and international Jewish groups.

In February, the Jewish Agency for Israel voted to grant about $1 million over two years to help Greece’s Jewish communal institutions continue operating. Other Jewish groups have offered aid, too. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gave $330,000 for welfare and school scholarships.

“We hesitated to ask for assistance, but after doing all the cost-cutting we could, we decided we could not cut more without losing important things,” Taraboulous said. “We decided the school should not suffer.”

With no end in sight to the crisis, however, he fears the community may need to ask again.

“Many Greeks gave a lot in the past to support Israel and other Jewish communities,” he said. “Now is the time for the Greeks to get help. We need it, and we need it now.”