What Montreal Jewish day school is at its peak enrolment, accepts any Jewish child regardless of academic ability, the family’s financial status or religious observance, and is officially French even though the great majority of students are anglophones?
It’s Beth Rivkah Academy, a school under Lubavitch auspices for girls aged 18 months to 18 years that is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
“I like to say we are the only public Jewish school in Montreal,” said Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz, the principal for 42 years.
“No child is turned away. They just must have a Jewish mother and be a girl.”
To mark its milestone, Beth Rivkah is holding a reunion of its far-flung alumni on May 22 at the school. The theme is “Reunite to Reignite.”
In addition to being its diamond jubilee, the occasion is significant for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement because this is a year of Hakhel, an affirmation of Jewish unity and purpose.
Observed every seven years, Hakhel recalls the time when all Jews assembled on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to hear the king read from the Torah.
Beth Rivkah today has about 600 students – it’s never been higher than that, Rabbi Minkowitz said. Up to 40 per cent are not from Lubavitch homes. Perhaps 10 per cent have some kind of learning disability and benefit from a remedial program run in conjunction with Vanguard Schools. Beth Rivkah probably has the largest resource room of any Jewish school, with five or six teachers devoted to instruction there, he said.
Tuition is scaled to the family’s resources, and Rabbi Minkowitz let slip the “secret” that some pay nothing at all. And no one pries into what goes on in the students’ homes as far as religiosity is concerned.
Beth Rivkah is recognized as a French school by the Quebec government, which means it can and does accept immigrants.
While Jewish studies, of course, have a high priority, Beth Rivkah fully follows the education ministry’s prescribed curriculum.
“We follow it completely, and we are carefully monitored. Our permit came up for renewal this year, and the inspectors came and they were very satisfied.”
He added: “Our students are writing the same matrics as francophone students in Chicoutimi or Quebec City, and they are doing unbelievably well,” he said, “even though they don’t speak French at home or even among themselves.
“I believe we are the only French school in Quebec where the majority of students are anglophones.”
Beth Rivkah has just made the offer of free tuition for a year at the lower grades for any Jewish immigrant from France, Rabbi Minkowitz said.
Almost all graduates go on to post-secondary education, many to teachers’ seminaries within the Chabad sphere, but many also to regular colleges and universities, he said.
“When they finish Beth Rivkah, all options are open to them.”
Alumni are scattered around the globe, partly because a significant number become shluchim, or Lubavitch emissaries.
Beth Rivkah was founded in accordance with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s philosophy that “no child should be left behind.”
The school was first located in a duplex in Outremont, and moved to its present site on Vézina Street in the late 1960s. It has undergone two major expansions: an extra floor was added in 1989, and a new wing about 10 years ago. The school now occupies an entire city block.
One major reason for the continued growth has been its Centre de la Petite Enfance (CPE), a government-subsidized day care that serves as a “feeder” to the school, he said. Beth Rikvah has had a CPE since the program began, and today, with 124 spots, it is the largest in province among those that are single-permit holders. But there is always a waiting list, he said.
“The key to our success is that we look at the child holistically – at their total well-being – emotional, as well as educational,” Rabbi Minkowitz said. “Each is treated with dignity and respect. Although we work closely with parents, we don’t leave everything up to them, if they are not capable of doing it all.”
Some of Beth Rivkah’s outstanding students have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Why should they be penalized? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Rabbi Minkowitz also gives full credit to the staff. “They are very dedicated, idealistic. This is not just a job where they punch in and punch out.”
Two graduates offer praise for their alma mater. “I have a high regard for my remarkable teachers and mentors who paved the way for me to pursue a master’s degree and a career in higher education,” said Simi (Ben-Tovim) Feigen (class of ’82). “One of my distinguished teachers, Mrs. Sima Mockin, inspired me and taught me to keep reaching for my dream.”
Chaya Fuchs Gedaliovich (class of ’81) concurred: “From the moment I entered Beth Rivkah at age 11, I felt nothing but love and acceptance from my teachers and my classmates. Beth Rivkah was a place where each and every girl was treated with kindness, compassion and respect, and given the opportunity to reach her highest potential.”