Dalai Lamas envoys explore Jewish schools in N.Y., Chicago

NEW YORK — Perpetuating strong religious and national identity is a challenge for American Jews, but the Dalai Lama — who was in the Bay Area this week for a three-day conference — at least, admires how Jews are faring.

So the spiritual and national leader of Tibet's 130,000 dispersed souls sent the two top educators in his government-in-exile to the United States this month to learn from Jews how they keep their heritage alive.

The officials, who oversee 86 schools for the population's 27,000 children, traveled to New York and Chicago to visit Jewish day schools of every affiliation.

Their goal was to learn how Jewish educators inculcate in their students religious and cultural values and wisdom in a way that will enable them to remain Jewish, generations into diaspora.

"It is good for us to know that others have lived through this struggle and been successful," Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Tibet's minister of education, said while touring the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"His Holiness often says how the Jewish people and Tibetans have so much in similarity through their histories," said Choegyal, who is the Dalai Lama's sister-in-law.

Ngodup Tsering, Tibet's secretary of education, said, "Our biggest problem is assimilation, at the moment."

Tibetan children are more interested in things Western — such as clothing and music — than in their own cultural heritage, he said.

During their visit to the Heschel school, an independent, pluralistic day school, Choegyal and Tsering watched third- graders being coaxed through Hebrew grammar in one classroom, and in another, eighth-graders deconstructing a page of Gemarah to understand the way talmudic rabbis deemed that different types of murder should be judged.

The Tibetans said they were impressed by the integration at the heart of Heschel's elementary school curriculum, in which each classroom is divided in half. While one half studies Hebrew grammar, the others are reading and analyzing English literature.

Their trip, which was funded by the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation, included visits to Orthodox day schools, including Ramaz, as well as Reform institutions in Manhattan and Chicago.

They were here to look, listen and learn, but also to try to raise awareness of their needs among American Jews.

Their biggest challenge, and perhaps the way in which they are most obviously different from the Jews they were meeting, is the level of poverty of their people.

"The moral support from the parents is very much there, but they are very poor," said Choegyal, walking through the halls of a school festively decorated with craft projects made by students obviously blessed with a surfeit of art supplies.

"I saw a teacher have his students paint on paper, hung on the wall, big pictures of Jerusalem," she said. "There was no problem with enough paint, and the children very much enjoyed themselves.

"Our teachers cannot do such a thing, because they must worry about enough paint for the next day and the next," said Choegyal, garbed in the traditional Tibetan chuba, which looks similar to a Western dress on top and flows into very loose pant legs.

Tsering wore a suit, white shirt and tie.

The educators said about 40 percent of the Tibetan government's budget is devoted to education. That money comes from the Indian government, charities and individuals.

Their Department of Education supports both day and boarding schools in the three principal countries where Tibetans reside.

Most Tibetans — some 100,000 — live in India. About 15,000 reside in Nepal and 1,500 more are in Bhutan, with the rest dispersed throughout the world.

It costs $20 per month to educate, feed and provide medical care to each of their students through high school age, and twice that to support Tibetan youth in colleges and vocational training centers.

The director of Heschel's middle school, Judith Tumin, told the visitors how her students integrate into their daily lives the Jewish concept, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, through doing good deeds like giving charity.

She told them that her students donate kosher food to Jews who are hungry and impoverished, and they run a book drive for the poorest of New York City's public schools.

"His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is always talking about universal responsibility and the notion of interdependency," Choegyal said, commending her American colleague.

She asked Tumin and a colleague if they would consider allowing Tibetan students to receive donations collected as tzedakah by the Jewish students, a concept Tumin said she was interested in investigating.

Tumin said she would like her students to study Tibet in depth, the nation's oppression by the Chinese government and its dispersion.

Despite dispersion in Jewish history, "our children have never lived through this experience" of being dispossessed from their national homeland, she said.

The visiting Tibetans promised to send the writings of the Dalai Lama to share with her students.

Tumin stepped back into her office for a moment, and when she returned, handed her visitors a small gift-wrapped package.

Inside were books written by the school's namesake because Heschel, she said, had much to say about integrating one's Jewish and American identities.

The school gives the same books to each student who becomes bar or bat mitzvah, Tumin said, when it is time for them to take responsibility for their identities as Jews living in the contemporary world.