Cash crisis threatens future of ORT network in FSU


21 November 2008 Cash crisis threatens future of ORT network in FSU World ORTs education network in the Former Soviet Union could collapse within weeks if emergency funding is not found to fill the vacuum left by the Jewish Agency For Israels (JAFI) withdrawal of support for the schools social needs and teachers salaries normally covered through the Heftsiba programme. Nearly 20 years of hard work restoring ORTs presence in the land of its birth has meant that each year thousands of students who would otherwise have had no connection with their Jewish heritage have been learning skills for success in a Jewish environment. The crisis is all the more tragic given that World ORT needs only $300 per student per year to pay for food, transport, security and to top up teachers wages vital elements to keep Jewish children on the student roll. If, God forbid, the funding is not found and our schools are absorbed by the state system thereby ceasing to be ORT Jewish schools then it would be irreversible, World ORT Director General Robert Singer said. There is no prospect that the system we have built up over the past two decades could be rebuilt in the next two decades. Mr Singer highlighted the problem at a special panel held during the UJC General Assembly in Jerusalem this week, Disturbing Economic Trends in the FSU and other Jewish Problems. I asked the panel to imagine Binyanei Haumah, the Jerusalem International Convention Centre where the GA opened in front of some 3,000 people, Mr Singer said. World ORT has twice that number of Jewish children in the FSU who would be left without a Jewish school in five weeks. This would be disastrous not only for ORT but for the Jewish People as a whole. Almost all the 5,000 families who send their children to our schools are not affiliated to a synagogue or other Jewish organisation the ORT school is their only connection with Judaism. In a region with such a high assimilation rate this connection must not be broken. We are dealing here with a situation of saving Jews as Jews. 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. JAFI wrote to the principals of the 16 ORT schools in the FSU in September informing them that it would not be able to honour its three-year, $3.75 million commitment because of the dramatic fall in the dollar exchange rate. However, it made a one-off allocation of $250,000 to ease the shock. That money allowed us to start the new school year and pay the previous years debt, Mr Singer said. But the announcement caused great instability; were already losing Hebrew and Jewish Studies teachers because they know that the funding will be exhausted in another month or so and they have found jobs elsewhere. The JAFI bombshell came in the wake of difficulties in operating the network because of the dollar exchange rate and increased local cost of living reducing the power of World ORTs support. Now, the international financial crisis and consequent economic slowdown is set to add to World ORTs woes. Most of our schools funding comes from local governments. Recession in Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and the Baltic States will no doubt lead to tremendous cuts which will affect our schools severely, Mr Singer said. Also participating in the panel discussion at the UJC GA was Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of the Joint Distribution Committees (JDC) FSU Programmes. Mr Ostrin was quoted by The Jewish Week recently as describing the problems faced by the Jewish day schools in the FSU as a harbinger of worse to come for Jewish communities in the region. The day schools [are] the canary in the coal mine a warning of a much larger impending crisis affecting Jewish life in the FSU due to the worldwide economic crisis, he said. In the same story, The Jewish Week also quoted Alan Hoffman, Director General of JAFIs Department for Jewish Zionist Education, as saying that the Jewish Agency had already begun to make a major effort to secure designated funds for [Heftsiba] among donors in North America. However, his meetings with top UJC officials at the GA this week has not left Mr Singer with a sense of optimism. Theres plenty of goodwill, just no money, he said. Together with World ORT President Dr Jean de Gunzburg and World ORTs Representative in Russia, Avi Ganon, Mr Singer also had talks with Rabbi Meshulam Nahari, a Minister without Portfolio in Israels Ministry of Finance with a special interest in education. He is very worried that the Jewish Agency has stopped its funding, Mr Singer said. He strongly believes in the importance of Jewish education in the Diaspora and hes taking this issue to the highest level in the Israel Government. He gave us his personal commitment to work to avoid any school closures. However, the political reality in Israel with the country preparing for a general election means that there is no expectation of the immediate assistance that World ORT needs. The next six months are critical to finding a solution, that is before the next Israeli government is in place. During this period were facing a situation where our schools wont have the funding they need, Mr Singer said.