Jewish education on the ropes in the FSU


The Jewish Studies departments in World ORT’s smaller schools in the Former Soviet Union will be forced to close by the end of this calendar year unless funds are found to meet the continued shortfall in the Heftsiba programme.

Some 170 local Jewish Studies and Hebrew teachers face redundancy unless their salaries can be funded.

The prospect of Jewish children being left without the opportunity to learn about their heritage and develop Hebrew-language skills has cast a pall over the traditionally festive start of the new school year. “The story of the future of Jews in the Former Soviet Union is not yet written,” said World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer. “Without the active, immediate and on-going support of fellow Jews around the world there may soon be little left to write about.”
Ironically, the warning comes amid some positive developments for Heftsiba, the name given to the programme which channels financial and material support to the ORT, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael school networks to provide hot lunches, school buses and salary top-ups for teachers.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) has followed up the $1.1 million it gave in July to meet this year’s social welfare component of Heftsiba “モ such as hot meals and school buses “モ with a commitment to meet next year’s social needs.
And Israel’s Ministry of Education has provided the money to send Israeli teachers, known as shlichim, to the schools.
But if the money necessary to pay for local Jewish Studies and Hebrew teachers is not forthcoming then the shlichim’s role may also become redundant.
“As long as the Jewish departments are running somehow then we will send the Israeli teachers to the schools as our part of the agreement,” said Avi Ganon, World ORT Representative in Russia. “But once the departments close there may be no point in doing that.”
Heftsiba has been lurching from one financial crisis to another for two years but has been repeatedly brought back from the brink of collapse by last-minute emergency funding from various sources. But there are no signs of any such funding this time, Mr Ganon said.
“We have even borrowed money to meet shortfalls but we’re not going to do that any more because we don’t have the resources to pay back further loans,” Mr Ganon said.
Soviet policies left traditional Jewish life and practice in tatters and the 18 schools run by ORT, as well as the religious schools run by Or Avner and Shema Yisrael, have been playing a key role in repairing the damage for this and future generations.
“By providing top quality academic instruction within a safe Jewish environment we have been able to restore the link between thousands of families and their heritage that had been all but lost,” Mr Singer said. “Children have been teaching their parents what it is to be Jewish contributing greatly to a reinvigoration of communal life. It is nothing short of a tragedy to think that this process of renewal could be cut short because the Jewish world is not providing the $500,000-a-year needed to keep it going.”
ORT’s smaller schools, such as the Jerusalem school in St Petersburg and its high schools in Odessa and Samara, are among those likely to be hardest hit. The larger schools in Moscow and Kiev may be able to limp along but will be under even greater pressure to cut costs generally.
As Dan Brown, founder of the influential eJewish Philanthropy website, noted this week this will result in a reduction of working conditions for teachers thus making it more difficult to retain top teachers in what is a competitive job market.
“In several cities, ORT schools have achieved special status from their respective governments to become experimental laboratories for both new techniques and technologies. Like schools all over the world, parents are interested in high-quality education. If the top teachers leave, the top students will not be far behind,” Mr Brown wrote.
Mr Brown echoed Mr Singer’s call for action recalling the observation made by IFCJ Founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein that the costs of Jewish education and child welfare in the FSU should be borne by the world Jewish community.
“We need to listen, absorb this message and act,” Mr Brown concluded.