The field of Jewish education in our generation is challenging, but the field of special education is especially so. Few have met those challenges head-on more successfully than the developer of Zurich’s Etz Chaim School, Joshua Goldschmidt.
More than 30 years ago, Mr. Goldschmidt was made aware of the need for a special education school in Switzerland’s largest Jewish community. Always cognizant of Shlomo Hamelech’s dictum in Mishlei regarding education: “Chanoch l’naar al pi darko — teach a child in the way he should go,” he worked tirelessly with others to establish the first German-speaking school for special education in Zurich.
The only Jewish school of its kind in Switzerland that spans elementary and intermediate classes through high school, Etz Chaim School provides its students with a host of teachers, therapists and supervisors who give undivided attention to each and every child. Subjects such as math and science are taught alongside Chumash and Mishnah, and they are supplemented with sports, arts and crafts, and swimming.
Under Mr. Goldschmidt’s supervision, the school has flourished and enhanced the Zurich Jewish community in immeasurable ways. And it changed Mr. Goldschmidt’s life profoundly. A Zurich native who lives there with his family, and a businessman by profession, he used his background and skills to effectively transform what began as a venture to help the community into the focus of his activities. In our conversation, Mr. Goldschmidt describes the growth of this special school, both its challenges and accomplishments, and how the journey has essentially become his life’s mission.
How did you get involved in this endeavor and what personally inspired you to take it on?
The initial impetus was a goodbye party for a good friend of ours who left Switzerland in 1990. We wanted to get him a farewell gift and suggested perhaps doing something more meaningful than just giving a gift since he had been in Zurich for many years. He mentioned that there were many students at the girls’ school, where he served on the board, who needed remedial help and recommended getting together some money to help these girls.
We thought it was a great idea but then realized that there must be other schools with many other children who also needed help. We proposed doing something properly by establishing a special education school for all the children who need help. That was the beginning of our school. We named the school Etz Chaim after this good friend’s nephew Chaim Weiss, who was tragically murdered in yeshiva at Long Beach, N.Y.
Did Etz Chaim start immediately as a full-fledged school and what kind of help did you have to enlist at its inception?
Initially it started out as program for remedial tutoring for children who needed help. We started out with only six or seven kids. One of the main players in the school’s establishment was Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried Ph.D., who is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at Yeshiva University and who has developed courses related to Jewish education and psychology. He is a world-renowned specialist in special education and initially came in from New York on an annual basis, and sometimes more often, to help us establish our school.
Etz Chaim has had comprehensive Rabbinical guidance starting from its embryonic stage on. This included direction by Harav Moishe Soloviejczyk, zt”l, who was one of Europe’s prominent Rabbanim. Many meetings took place in his home and he was recognized as the spiritual lighthouse of Etz Chaim School.
How many students do you have now and from which communities do they come?
Today we have close to 50 students. Our students come mainly from Zurich and other German-speaking parts of Switzerland — like Lucerne, Basel and Baden. In the past we even had kids from Germany who stayed with host-families in Zurich during the week and went home for weekends. At its inception, Etz Chaim was the first Jewish special education school in the German-speaking parts of Europe — Austria, Germany and Switzerland — and, to the best of my knowledge, we still are today the only such institution.
Is there continued growth in these Jewish German-speaking communities to accommodate a continuing need for the school?
I cannot talk for Europe or even other parts of Switzerland, but there is definitely a continuing need among the frum heimishe olam in Zurich. This is where most of our students come, and the community is certainly growing by leaps and bounds.
Does the Etz Chaim School qualify to receive government funding?
Yes, but it didn’t happen right away. For the first few years we struggled to get government recognition by the Board of Education of the Canton of Zurich. The onus of covering our budget lay solely on our shoulders. After about six or seven years we started getting government funding, which until recently covered 70-80% of our annual budget.
Every two years the government fixes another allotment for special needs students. Our school started with 20 kids, then 26 kids, then 30 kids. Two years ago, we reached the government maximum of 36 students. This limit was imposed since the government did not want to allot a higher percentage of special education spaces to the Jewish community compared to the general population. There seems to be an ever-growing need among the Jewish population and we now have close to 50 students, which is way beyond the number of subsidized spaces. We’re currently faced with an annual deficit of close to a million francs.
In many parts of Europe, especially in England, there is government interference in the curricula of Jewish schools. Are there any strings attached in this regard because you receive government funding?
Yes. Schools all over the world are exposed to governmental regulations and control, whether or not they receive financing. Even schools that don’t get financing have to fulfill certain general studies requirements. Obviously if a school gets financing it’s even more challenging.
We get funding on average for approximately 30 lessons a week of general studies. Normally in the Jewish schools there is an average of 20 general studies and at least 20 or 25 limudei kodesh lessons. This becomes a problem if we were to offer only 20 secular studies lessons and get funded for 30.
To solve this, we came up with something we feel is quite innovative. Our current vice president David Langnas was very instrumental in this project of taking general studies, like math, chemistry, or earth science, and augmenting them with kodesh content. When you have the right teacher with the right qualifications, you can practically take any subject and fill it with kodesh . We mark these subjects as “hybrid” — like “Parsha/Art&Crafts” or “Gemarah/Social Studies”.
For example, this year is a Shemittah year. We did a Shevi’is project and produced a magnificent 60-page Shemittah booklet in the style of a card album with over 140 cards. This booklet, which for all intents and purposes is a sefer, is based on Torah, Mishnah and halachah. We can easily demonstrate to anyone that, while it’s based on Jewish curricula, it also covers a whole range of general studies subjects, such as geology, math, earth science, etc.
Are all your teachers required to be frum to teach such a curriculum?
No, because many of the general studies are still strictly general studies and not all can be amalgamated into hybrid lessons. By definition, however, the hybrid lessons are always taught by Jewish teachers. We are actually constantly looking for more such teachers with dual-backgrounds, i.e. with a solid Chinuch-qualification combined with full, formal special-ed credentials .
What we are trying to do here is elevate the chol to kodesh by fulfilling general subjects and filling the quota with kedushah. We think this is a tremendous service to the community. If you read through his sefarim, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that, aside from German literature and philosophy, you can take almost any general subject and fill it with kedushah. That’s the job of Yidden — to make something holy out of the mundane. This is the lesson we would like to teach our children.
In addition to academic subjects, do you provide any vocational training so that students can be mainstreamed and live independently after they graduate?
Yes. Vocational training is part of the curriculum, especially in the higher grades. For example, we had a carpentry shop where the students had arts and crafts projects and which was part of the regular curriculum.
Students with carpentry training manufactured a whole variety of products. Among others, we produced shtenders, book shelves, and ramps for wheelchair accessibility for the Jewish old age home. We did quite a bit of work.
In addition to providing special education, in what other ways has the school impacted the community?
Not only do children with special needs benefit from the individual and professional services at Etz Chaim, but now other schools can concentrate solely on regular functioning students. That takes a load off their shoulders.
In addition, we have an arrangement with mainstream schools that they can send us students who don’t qualify for special education but nevertheless can benefit from more attention. This way they can avail themselves of our resources and staff and we pool together our resources.
In order to foster integration between our students and their peers in mainstream schools, we also offer after-school programs, including sports and arts and crafts. These extra-curricular activities, which were a novelty in the community, became extremely popular and attracted up to 250 children.
In an effort to alleviate the stigma of Etz Chaim as being a school for only low performers, we also offered a program for high performers called ‘Etz Chaim Academy’. It was aimed at gifted, talented, and high IQ children. One family actually had one daughter in the gifted program and one in the special education program.
Finally, we also have a new and very successful project, our AAT (animal-assisted-therapy) program, which has been beneficial particularly for autistic children. By caring and taking responsibilities for rabbits, chicken, goats or sheep, the youngsters develop a certain bond with them that in turn enables improvement of their social interaction skills. The community also benefits from our ‘Therapy Zoo’ by allowing visiting children and adults alike to ‘interact’ with Hashem’s creatures, something the average urban dweller is not too often able to.
With a background in finance, how did you shift your focus towards something much more altruistic?
Being able to help so many children with special needs is a tremendous zechus. And I must include Etz Chaim’s amazing staff and board, who are committed to help the children with special needs and to develop the school to meet ever changing needs. To me, I really regard it as a vocation rather than a job. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”