IFCJ and Israel offer to help Heftsiba


28 January 2009 IFCJ and Israel offer to help Heftsiba There is new hope for World ORT’s schools network in the Former Soviet Union thanks to an emergency pledge of $600,000 by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and the State of Israel. The 16 ORT schools in the region face being absorbed into the public education system and losing their Jewish character because of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) decision to stop funding Heftsiba, the programme which provides for Jewish Studies, supplementing teachers’ wages and security. Heftsiba also provides hot lunches and school buses – critical services for schools serving Jewish communities scattered across large urban sprawls and teaching a curriculum that demands long days. No money has been transferred and final, written confirmation of the grant has yet to be received from the Israeli Ministry of Education but the prospect of help has come as a great relief to communities, thousands of children, school staff and everyone at ORT. However, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Founder and President of the IFCJ, warned that the Jewish community still needed to find a way to secure the long term future of Jewish education in the Former Soviet Union. ‘The Fellowship feels privileged to be able to help; but this is only a band-aid and there’s no solution yet to the fundamental issue,’ Rabbi Eckstein said. ‘The fundamental issue is that there is no Jewish organisation that is willing or capable of assuming responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children and their future in the Former Soviet Union.’ The State of Israel’s financial support for Heftsiba has been cut by two-thirds over the past few years, according to the Director of Heftsiba in the Ministry of Education, Yohanan Ben-Ya’acov, quoted in The Jerusalem Post. It was feared that the withdrawal of JAFI’s funding in September would be the final nail in the coffin. World ORT’s Representative in Russia, Avi Ganon, has been leading the frantic search for funding to fill the vacuum left by JAFI. There had been a collective ‘huge sigh of relief’ at news of the IFCJ’s willingness to help, Mr Ganon said. ‘They are the ‘Mashiach’ in this case,’ he said. ‘Without their initiative this deal would not have come about. Once the money comes through, the schools will be able to function properly until the end of the year providing Jewish education and covering all necessary expenses. What’s important is the Israeli government’s recognition of its obligation to Heftsiba, to be committed to the project and not let it collapse.’ Rabbi Eckstein said that when approached by World ORT and JAFI to support Heftsiba, which is also essential for the preservation of the Or Avner and Shema Israel religious school systems, the IFCJ promised a one-off grant of up to $5 million for all three networks provided it was matched by funds from Jewish sources. ‘The Israeli government came up with $1 million and we matched that,’ Rabbi Eckstein said. ‘So even if the next government carries through, we’re only talking about $1 million and that’s peanuts when you think of what the needs are. Tens of millions of dollars are needed and the Jewish community has to come to grips with that.’ The Director of ORT Russia, Dr Slava Leshchiner, was deeply appreciative of the IFCJ’s financial lifeline. ‘This grant is very, very important,’ Dr Leshchiner said. ‘I feel relieved for this year. And for principals this is a very, very important emergency measure because this amount of money will allow them to pay teachers and to continue transportation of children and social programme such as hot lunches. This money will allow them to continue normal work. But I am worried about next year.’ He was mindful that Heftsiba was far more than the sum of its parts. ‘Heftsiba is a system of management, quality control and instructional support and provides Israeli teachers who are expert in Hebrew and Jewish education,’ he said. ‘Nobody can do anything without money but with Heftsiba there are many value-added features.’ World ORT Director General Robert Singer expressed gratitude to the IFCJ and its supporters, mostly North American Christians, for their offer of help. ‘The Jewish education system which has been built up since the collapse of the Soviet Union was in real danger – 20 years of hard work, the realisation of a great vision, may have been lost forever,’ Mr Singer said. ‘That Christians in North America should help Jews in the Former Soviet Union is a beacon of hope for the future, helping to heal the wounds of the past and providing a welcome contrast to the resurgence of anti-Jewish feelings in many parts of the world.’