Israeli funds for Heftsiba a stop gap


29 July 2009 Israeli funds for Heftsiba a stop gap World ORT has welcomed the Israeli Governments decision to release the funds it had promised for the 44 Jewish schools in the Former Soviet Union which belong to the Heftsiba programme. The Ministry of Education released the money last week, three days after the Jerusalem Post published comments by the Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, lambasting Israels failure to honour its commitment to match the funds provided by his organisation six months ago. But the future of the Heftsiba programme, which includes 17 ORT institutions, is still in doubt because the NIS 3.5 million which is due to reach the schools next week will only help to cover some of the deficits accumulated over the last academic year. Of course the money is very welcome; this is very good news, said World ORTs Representative in Russia, Avi Ganon. But it is simply a stop gap. These funds are not sufficient to cover all the deficits which have built up since the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) withdrew its $2 million funding of Heftsiba last year. For more than 20 years Heftsiba has provided for Jewish Studies, the bolstering of teachers wages and for 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. Now, World ORT is negotiating with the Ministry of Education for the financing to ensure that the Heftsiba programme does not collapse with the resulting absorption of the schools, which also include the Or Avner and Shema Israel religious institutions, into the mainstream public school system. The good news is that there is a lot of good will in the Ministry of Education and with key people such as [Minister in the Prime Ministers Office] Meshulam Nahari and [Jewish Agency Chairman] Natan Sharansky both of whom we met recently, said World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer. But we remain very worried because we are only one month away from the start of the new academic year and the bottom line is that we dont have a confirmed budget. Teachers need to know that they have jobs; transport has to be arranged. But critical aspects of our schools administration can not be prepared because we dont know exactly what the funding situation will be. Rabbi Eckstein was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as expecting to have to support the Heftsiba schools again come September but reiterated that this should not be the responsibility of Christian Americans. We are glad to do our part and help, he said, but we need partners, including the government of Israel, which is the embodiment of world Jewry. Mr Singer recognised the good will that also lay within the IFCJ but again stressed that the organisation had not yet made a firm commitment to provide funds. All of us deeply appreciate what the IFCJ did last year because without their help the whole system would have collapsed, Mr Singer said. Looking to the future, I think Rabbi Eckstein is right in principle: the bodies which are traditionally responsible for Jewish communities should pick up the bill for Heftsiba. Unfortunately thats not happening. He said that the continued functioning of Heftsiba was fundamental to the vitality of the Jewish communities of the Former Soviet Union and had far-reaching ramifications for the State of Israel. The Jews of the Former Soviet Union form the largest reservoir for aliyah and without the Jewish schools which form the core of their communities their future as Jews is in danger. It is a view shared by Rabbi Eckstein, who told the Jerusalem Post: If the schools do not receive the appropriate funding then an entire generation of children in the Former Soviet Union would lose not only their Jewish identity but also a means of survival. The danger is that everything that has been built in the past 30 years is now in jeopardy and is imploding, its all in jeopardy. If we lose it, thats it for that generation and that means the future of the Jewish world in the Former Soviet Union.