While in Paris last March celebrating his wedding anniversary, Jacques Baghdadi set in motion another kind of shidduch. Like many in the community, frustrated with the high cost of yeshivas in Brooklyn, he knocked on the door of Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization with 150 years of experience providing high-quality, affordable Jewish education worldwide.


One year and one more trip to Paris later, Baghdadi’s journey has come full circle; the Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach became the first American school to partner with Alliance in an effort to expand the school and enhance the curriculum while keeping costs down. This convergence was possible because both institutions have a common mission.


“The promise the Alliance presence represents here is the beginning of a partnership that will promote a more vigorous Jewish education in our community,” said Jerry Greenwald, president of YMB. “For many years we have supported educating Jewish children who showed up at our doorstep and accepted our responsibility to nurture and teach each of these children without regard to their parents’ ability to pay.”


At the March 26 meeting that officially inaugurated the partnership, Jo Toledano, director general of Alliance, expressed similar thoughts as he recalled meeting with Baghdadi a year before. “The Alliance has served for the past one-and-a-half centuries through education geared toward the needs of every community in each country. The Alliance developed different approaches to educate various types of Jewish students based on respect between students and their teachers of limudei kodesh, the skills of teaching, the love of Judaism based on strong knowledge, and the access to Hebrew texts.


“I saw the same approach at the yeshiva as that of the founders of Alliance. Both YMB and Alliance were looking for the best way to transmit Jewish identity. In this school there is a neshama. There is something very unique.”


That morning, the sound of children singing tefillot could be heard up and down the hallways decorated with educational posters and charts honoring student achievements. YMB offers classes through eighth grade and provides scholarships to families in need. Graduates are able to attend some of the most prestigious yeshiva high schools in the metropolitan area, but for some families these schools are financially out of reach.


With support from Alliance, YMB plans to open its own high school, adding a 9th grade in September 2010 and another grade each year. This will both heighten academic expectations and lighten the financial burden on parents, said Hilda Mirwis, the school’s principal. This coming September will see changes in what is already a challenging academic curriculum with the addition of French classes – not as an elective, but as a daily requirement, initially in preschool and early childhood classes.


Like all schools in the Alliance network, the new incarnation of YMB will reflect the organization’s French roots and its commitment to rigorous secular education alongside traditional Jewish studies. The most obvious change will be the daily twenty-minute French classes, but students will find a more European philosophy infusing all classes when they return from summer vacation.


Of course it will be adapted to an American Modern Orthodox yeshiva, said Rabbi Elie Abadie, educational adviser for the YMB-Alliance partnership, but generally the philosophy will emphasize broad universal education and promote understanding over rote memorization. YMB teachers will participate in an ongoing mentoring program with Yeshiva University and visit established Alliance schools in Montreal. Students will also participate in exchange programs between Alliance schools around the world to promote cross-cultural interaction.


This isn’t completely new for YMB. One reason Alliance choose YMB over all the other schools on its seven-year waiting list is that it’s already shown a commitment to quality secular and Jewish education, accessible to all. 


“Our mission is to educate our children to be productive Modern Orthodox Jews and patriotic American citizens through a belief in and a love for Hashem, Israel, Torah and mitzvot,” said Mirwis. “Indeed, our graduates have fulfilled a Jewish mother’s dream. Many have gone on to the most prestigious universities and have become doctors, lawyers, businessmen, educators, and rabbis, often in the service of the Jewish community.”


“The school is not an industry, it gives personal attention,” said Toledano, who had visited the latest addition to the Alliance network several times during the process.


Having grown up in Lebanon below the poverty level, Baghdadi knows the power of an Alliance education first-hand. “My parents could not afford to pay a thing,” he said. Alliance gave him a scholarship to their school in Beirut where every student, rich or poor, wore a uniform.


“It opens up a world of advantages,” he said of the Alliance model, explaining that multilingual YMB graduates will have better opportunities for higher education and employment. Baghdadi graduated speaking Hebrew, French, Arabic, and English and went on to become a successful businessman.



Seated left to right: George Lati, YMB parent and board member; Jo Toledano, Director General, AIU; Jerry Greenwald, YMB President; Isabelle Friedman, American Friends of AIU; Hilda Mirwis, Head of School


Standing left to right: Elias Levi, YMB board member and Mattan Besseter; Baruch Kassab, YMB board member and Alliance graduate; Ruth Kahn, YMB staff; Linda Handlarsky, YMB staff; Edmond Elbaz, Director General AIU Canada; Rabbi Elimelech Gottlieb, Director NYC Institute for Day School Management; Jacques Baghdadi, YMB board member and Alliance graduate; Jack Bokai, Yola Haber, Sephardic Bikur Cholim, Division of Career Services; Leah Hoffman, YMB staff; Sara Leah Rubinstein, YMB staff.


(Photo by Shimon Golding / The Jewish Press)



When the Alliance partnership was first proposed, some YMB parents and faculty were worried that enhanced secular studies would come at a cost to the Jewish half of the school day. But further research revealed that each Alliance-affiliated school creates its own Jewish studies curriculum based on its community’s preferences.


The key to the Alliance philosophy is balancing a given community’s Jewish identity with engagement in the modern world.


“Alliance graduates could be scientists, but also excellent human beings that have a very strong base in Judaism,” said Edmond Elbaz, Alliance director general for Canada. He cited Maimonides, the sage and the doctor, as a role model.


The Oldest Jewish Organization


When Alliance was founded in 1860, it was about as far from Canada or Brooklyn as one can get. A group of young French Jews, eager to participate fully in secular society but unwilling to leave behind their traditions, met in Paris to develop an organization that would let them – and fellow Jews around the world – do both.


Just one year after its founding in Paris, Alliance opened its first school in Morocco where impoverished students received a free education along with food and clothing. Over the next few decades more schools were established in places like Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. Funding came mostly from the French Jewish community as well as the Rothschild and de Hirsch families.


“Its mission was to bring modernity to Jewish populations that were living almost in a middle-ages environment,” Elbaz said.


Before Alliance arrived in the Middle East, Jews had no access to public education and received only limited schooling from rabbis, according to Alliance Vice President Hubert Leven, a descendant of one of Alliance’s founders, Narcisse Leven, and president of Rashi Foundation.


Although there was some Jewish content in these pioneering Alliance schools, the priority at that time, according to Leven, was to get the students out of poverty through general education. Families were eager to enroll their children since Alliance was “the only opening to the modern world,” Leven said. After World War II public schooling was more widely available to Jews, so Alliance strengthened the Jewish identity component of its educational program.


Today, Alliance schools are located primarily in France, Canada, and Israel, since most Jews have left the Arab countries, although Moroccan schools remain. Alliance headquarters in Paris also provides adult education and is home to the largest Jewish library in Europe. Its alumni show up in headlines around the world, from former Israeli minister of foreign affairs Silvan Shalom to renowned Baghdad-born Canadian author Naim Kattan. Alliance founders are singled out by name in a prayer recited in Sephardic synagogues during Yom Kippur that thanks benefactors to their community throughout history.


“A lot of people think Alliance was something of the past,” Leven said. Alumni and their descendants need to be reminded that Alliance still exists and is as committed as ever to promoting Jewish identity and education, he added.


As Elbaz put it, “We have to follow our population wherever it is.”


From Paris to Brooklyn


A lot of those alumni happen to be in Brooklyn, including a number of YMB parents. When Baghdadi visited Alliance in Paris, he hadn’t even heard of YMB and proposed that Alliance build a school from scratch in Brooklyn. Back in New York, while at a meeting where other communal issues were being discussed, he told friends about the Paris meeting. It was Alliance graduate and YMB parent George Lati who suggested the partnership “knowing that the two were made for each other,” he said.


Four months after Baghdadi’sParis visit, Toledano visited New York. Lati, along with community members Toufik Kassab and Jacques Boucai, lobbied Toledano for an Alliance presence in Brooklyn over dinner at Prime Grill. It was only in a follow up phone call that Lati suggested Toledano visit YMB and evaluate a potential partnership. It took many more persuasive emails and calls after that, but eventually Toledano agreed.


“Toledano came, he looked, he was very impressed,” Lati said of the November visit. True to Talmudic tradition – “Through the testimony of two witnesses, the matter is decided” — both Leven and Elbaz visited the school and echoed Toledano’s observations.


Over the next few months YMB was host to a steady stream of Alliance visitors including Isabelle Friedman, former president of American Friends of AIU, Helene Eisenberg, a prominent French attorney, and her husband, Mark Eisenberg, vice president of Alliance, culminating in the March meeting.


The partnership was a logical step for Lati and other YMB parents who grew up in Alliance schools. “The years I spent with alliance are the years I remember with fondness,” he said. Lati recalls how his years at the Alliance gave him a feeling of family while providing him with a superb education, four languages and exceptional organizational skills that serve him well in his business to this day.


YMB works with parents to make tuition affordable, and even the building owners – board members of an attached synagogue – didn’t charge rent for many years, Lati said.

“They did the right thing as Jews,” he explained.


In short, YMB showcased the values of charity, Judaism, and education, just as he remembered from his Alliance school in Beirut. Lati first went to a French non-Jewish school because his father thought it would give him a sense of discipline, but the school just scared him.


“The other four years I spent with Alliance are the years I remember with fondness,” he said. Armed with four languages and a superb education, he recalled how it gave him a feeling of family and instilled organizational skills that serve him in his business to this day.


When his daughter started yeshiva in New York and came home asking for expensive brand name clothing, Lati realized that on the way to $10,000-plus tuitions, some core Jewish values had gotten lost. The search for a less materialistic, more caring school led the Lati family to YMB in Brooklyn. But once his children reached high-school age and left YMB, Lati was again faced with school representatives who were more “business-like” than “Jewish-like.” He said asking for tuition subsidies was degrading.


After that, as Baghdadi put it, “the puzzle fell together,” substantiating Lati’s initial conviction, and the YMB-Alliance partnership began to take shape. For Alliance students turned YMB parents, it’s a chance to provide the top-notch education they remember from childhood in the Brooklyn school that reflected Alliance values from the start.


In the words of Elbaz, “It’s a match from heaven.” Greenwald agrees. “We so much appreciate the adoption of our children and our yeshiva into this fine family. The educational changes proposed by the Alliance to be incorporated into our already excellent daily curriculum will bring about unprecedented growth potential for each one of our precious students.”


On Thursday evening, May 21, the Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach will celebrate the inauguration of the partnership with Alliance as the organization marks its 150th anniversary during a cocktail reception at Congregation Ohel David U’Shlomo in Manhattan Beach.