Budget cuts cast shadow on new school year


10 September 2008 Budget cuts cast shadow on new school year Little more than a year after it averted a crisis in World ORTs schools in Russia and neighbouring former Soviet republics by increasing the financial contribution it had earlier planned to cut, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has announced that it will not subsidise the schools social needs normally covered through the Heftsiba programme because of significant cuts in its own budget, expected in 2009. Heftsiba is the name given to the partnership between local governments in the Former Soviet Union, local Jewish communities, JAFI, World ORT and the Israeli Ministry of Education to provide formal Jewish education in Jewish schools in the CIS and Baltic States. In a letter to principals which arrived the day the schools opened for the new academic year, JAFI said it would not be able to honour its three-year, $3.75 million commitment for the 15 ORT schools because of the dramatic fall in the dollar exchange rate. However, JAFI has informed World ORT that it will make a one-off special allocation of $250,000 to the schools to ease the immediate situation. While financing remains for the Israeli teachers posted to each school, no money will be forthcoming to pay for food, transport, security and to top up teachers wages. If alternative sources of funding are not found soon, the effects could prove disastrous. This could ruin my school, said Dolina Shalmina, Principal of the ORT Alef school in Zaporojie, Ukraine. It is as if the Jewish Agency wants to ruin the whole idea of what weve been working for over the past 18 years to take Jewish education in this region to a new level and to write a positive, new chapter in the history of the Diaspora. But its impossible if we dont have additional money; you cant do something with nothing. The main issue, Ms Shalmina said, was transport. Zaporojie is a large city spread along the Dnieper River and the Jewish community is scattered across various neighbourhoods. The heavily subsidised school bus service means that parents have a safe and affordable way to send their children to the ORT school. However, the existing three buses are already overcrowded; five buses would be needed to provide a proper service to allow children to spend the 90-minute morning and evening commute in reasonable comfort while meeting additional demand for places. Without the Jewish Agencys support I cant even keep the buses I have, Ms Shalmina said. And without them no mothers would allow their children to travel such long distances using public transport so they will withdraw their children and put them in a non-Jewish school close to home. When we had a similar funding problem three years ago we lost 32 children before the Jewish Agency reversed its decision. I hope the Jewish Agency changes its mind now and does so quickly before we lose more children. This is a very troubling time. World ORT Director General Robert Singer visited some of the affected schools in Kiev and Moscow last week. There is a clear feeling of impending disaster in the local Jewish communities and the schools, Mr Singer said. The network exists thanks to bilateral agreements between Israel and the various countries in the region; it is hard to believe that after 18 years of success that we find ourselves in this situation. I highly appreciate the efforts of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency over the years and I hope that a financial solution will be found in the next few weeks so that this project can continue. At least 10 additional Jewish schools are needed in the area – instead of thinking about how to survive, we should be thinking how to increase activity. We are in touch with both JAFI and various ministries in Israel and hope to find a solution to this desperate situation. However, the new school year has got off to an exciting start in Beer Sheva, Israel where the Makif Aleph High School has seen a 30 per cent increase in enrolments thanks to World ORTs support for it through the Kadima Mada (Science Journey) programme. The Head of the World ORT Representative Office in Israel, Rony Kalinsky, said students, teachers and education officials had told him that the record enrolment was due to the technological boost given to the school with the installation of Interactive White Boards (IWBs), intelligent laboratories and other facilities. I was astonished because word has got around town so quickly, Mr Kalinsky said. It was only in April that we introduced the smart classes with IWBs and there has been the long summer holiday but everyones heard about it. Local authority education officials have told Mr Kalinsky that if World ORT were to implement Kadima Mada at another school, which, like Makif Aleph, is in an old, under-resourced neighbourhood, then it, too, would no longer find it hard to find good students. Yigal Gaz, Principal of another Kadima Mada school, Har VeGai in the Upper Galilee, said he, his staff and students were very excited about the installation of smart classes there over the next few months. Already maths and English teachers are building programmes which put the smart classes together with a distance learning programme that weve developed, Mr Gaz said. Our teachers have created a platform where they can put material for the kids to study outside school hours. It is programmes such as this which Mr Gaz hopes will boost the number of teenagers who complete high school with the matriculation exam that allows them to apply for university. Currently only some 50 per cent of Israel schoolchildren matriculate. Meanwhile, in Prague, a new wave of children can look forward to benefiting from the cutting edge computer centre installed at the Lauder Gur Aryeh Jewish Community Day School by World ORT and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. World ORT hopes to invest further in what is the Czech Republics only Jewish school by installing a high-tech language laboratory. In the meantime, the school is preparing to undergo major works to add a new floor to the building which will house a new kindergarten. By having an elementary school and high school together we hope to make it easier for Jewish children to stay in this school, said World ORTs representative in the school, Lucie Soklova. Once a child is in the elementary school its easier to move into the high school on the same site. Also, children coming from non-religious families will have the chance to learn about Judaism from a younger age. An example of the Jewish education enjoyed by children at the existing high school is a major project starting this term dedicated to the life and times of the Maharal, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, who died 400 years ago this year. Famously associated with the legend of the golem, the Maharal was one of the outstanding Jewish minds of the 16th Century. The project gives children a choice of subjects to study from Mishna to alchemy and gives them one day per month to devote to it as part of a group. Our plan is to educate our children about the Maharal and his era and to show he was a multi-faceted person, said the schools Head of Jewish Education Tereza Foltynova. But at the same time we want to present our project to an international conference next summer organised by the rabbinate of the Czech Republic to commemorate the Maharals yahrzeit.