Hong Kong graduates its first Jewish high school class

Though there are only four graduates, they are the realization of a communal dream begun in 1991 with a dozen toddlers

The inaugural Elsa High School graduating class. (photo credit: Denise Pontak)
The inaugural Elsa High School graduating class. (photo credit: Denise Pontak)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong is a place where change can happen rapidly, small ideas have huge potential and new ventures are constantly born. It is a global hub with restless energy and a stubborn entrepreneurial spirit. The Jewish community mirrors the pulse of this city in every way.

For a community of 4,000-5,000 Jews (even as the largest community in the region) to be able to boast seven congregations, a women’s organization, a tolerance centre, a historical society, a film festival and Maccabi, to list but a few, is remarkable. For this same community to now be able to boast its first graduating class in a through-train system of Jewish education is extraordinary.

Elsa High School, part of the Carmel School Association, held its first graduation late last month. Like all graduations held worldwide this season, this was of course about celebrating the achievements of its students. But in this ceremony this was perhaps as much about celebrating the community’s dream fulfilled. It is this collective achievement that made the ceremony into so much more than the four students who graduated.

“When the school was first established in 1991 by the visionary pioneers of the community, it was a dream of one of the founders, Mr. Ivan Greenstein, to one day have a Jewish high school in Hong Kong. No one ever thought that dream would be possible,” says Neil Hyman, chairman of the board of the Carmel School Association.

While the school was established in 1991 essentially as a playgroup of a dozen children, Carmel soon expanded into an elementary school (Pre-K to grade 5) and later incorporated a middle school (grades 6-8) in the late 1990s. Elsa High School opened its doors in September 2009.

Elsa High School, and the entire Carmel School Association, has very much been a community endeavor. This school and this first graduating class have been grown from the ground up; two of the four graduates have been in the system since they were toddlers.

Neil Hyman, Carmel School Association, Chairman of the Board. (photo credit: David G. McIntyre)
Neil Hyman, Carmel School Association, Chairman of the Board. (photo credit: David G. McIntyre)

According to Hyman though, translating a dream or vision into reality has not been without challenges.

“Establishing a new high school that caters for the needs of a diverse community (both in terms of religious beliefs, national and cultural differences, and differing educational backgrounds and needs) was never going to be easy. It has been a success thanks mainly to the inspirational leadership and incredible powers of perseverance.”

Those challenges also inevitably including funding as well as a suitable facility which in a city as densely populated as Hong Kong, where many schools are competing for limited space, is not a small feat. The actual graduation ceremony followed the school’s announcement of its successful permanent land grant bid (as opposed to its previous temporary status).

The Carmel School Association now securely stands, along with the Jewish Community Centre, as the center of Jewish communal life in Hong Kong. Though it maintains a Modern Orthodox ethos and adheres to Orthodox practice, it is pluralistic and independent, a neutral ground.

And what does access to a Jewish education mean in the Far East?

As Gemma Caron, mother of graduation senior David Caron explains, “Having lost his father at an early age, and his dad being the only Jewish influence in our family, it was important for me to support my son’s wish to take the path of Judaism. Putting him in a Jewish school provides him a unique Jewish family structure with a strong foundation to value his Jewish heritage.”

The new high school though also includes an international stream for non-Jewish students as well, which will help with the challenges of establishing a critical mass, a concern for a newly developing institution.

Rachel Friedmann, principal (photo credit: David G. McIntyre)
Rachel Friedmann, principal (photo credit: David G. McIntyre)

As Rachel Friedmann, Principal of the Carmel School Association explains, even with big future dreams, “Carmel is first and foremost a community school — the Hong Kong Jewish community is very closely knit with strong links to the school from all sections of the community.”

And while self-labeling as a “community school” runs the risk of sounding haimish, Elsa High School seems to somehow be able to blend the best of both worlds, creating a warm environment but adhering to academic standards of excellence. They are an International Baccalaureate school offering the Diploma Programme and Middle Years’ Programmes, and are WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accredited.

David Caron, an Emory University-bound graduating senior and Carmel Student since the age of two, sees benefits to his small class size.

“Every student has a voice. The school is able to cater for students’ individual needs. Whenever I need advice, my teachers were always available to speak with me… the principal is always willing to sit down and listen,” says Caron.

“I found the IB Diploma program very demanding and placed a heavy emphasis on research. For the 4,000 word Extended Essay all students are required to complete, I decided to write a research paper on the impact of the Six Day War on Religious Zionism. For History class, I wrote a paper investigating Sun Yat-Sen’s role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. The rigor has prepared me for the theses I will have to write in university,” says Caron.

Elsa High School accepts nothing less than first rate international academic standards for itself. “I have a clear vision of an expanding school, recognized as a center of academic excellence, drawing students from the whole of South East Asia,” says Friedmann.

There are big future plans for this relatively tiny institution including possibly opening up a boarding stream for students from around the region.

From a dozen toddlers in 1991, this community has built itself an internationally accredited Jewish academic institution where its approximately 350 other current students now have the opportunity for a through-train of Jewish education. As Rabbi Stanton Zamek, father of a rising senior commented, “It was incredibly gratifying to see Elsa reach this milestone. I don’t think I ever doubted that the high school would be a success given the depth of support in the community.”

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