A Special Gift That Keeps Giving

Published: February 7, 2022
Click here to see article originally published on Hamodia.com

Joshua Goldschmidt, Developer of Zurich’s Etz Chaim School, shares the story behind the only Jewish special ed day school in Switzerland

Etz Chaim Principal, Rav Ari Brandeis, MS Special Education.

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?

Arts & Crafts class.

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?