Despite budget cuts, ORT has improved the Jewish Studies at its network of 17 schools in the Former Soviet Union. But while the achievement appears to have increased student enrolment the Jewish character of some of the schools remains under a sword of Damocles.
Over the past seven years the budget for Heftsiba, the programme through which Israeli governments have supported Jewish schools in the region, has shrivelled to less than one-third its 2004 level creating huge strains on the provision of Hebrew language and Jewish historical and cultural studies.
“Emergency funding from the International Federation of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and the Israeli Government has been a godsend but has not gone on teachers’ salaries, only on social needs,”? said David Benish, World ORT Representative in the CIS and Baltic States. “We’ve been telling staff, whose salaries have remained very low, that tomorrow will be better, that we’ll find stable sources of finances. So far they’ve been patient but they need to feed their families. If they lose hope then they’ll leave and we’ll lose everything we’ve built. Our enthusiasm can’t replace decent salaries.”? In the short term, ORT has managed to pull higher quality lessons out of the hat by providing motivational training seminars and insisting on adequate timetabling.
“We have worked with the Israeli Ministry of Education to make an active contribution in terms of staff development and oversight in these subjects and the consequent raising of standards has been reflected in the comments made by parents in the on-line forums which each school has,”? Mr Benish said. “People read these comments and take notice and appreciate that we offer more than excellence in science and technology subjects.”?
This word-of-mouth approval of the ORT schools’ performance has, according to head teachers, significantly contributed to an increase in enrolment of 284 children on last year bringing the total to 6,368.
“This is important because we are serving more Jewish children and more Jewish families and that’s what we’re all about,”? Mr Benish said.
Some ORT schools, notably in St Petersburg and Moscow, are already oversubscribed so the increased enrolment in the schools where it did occur has been particularly welcome.
“It’s a very impressive development after some difficult years and shows that our schools have not only remained competitive with mainstream institutions but also that there is a demand for what ORT offers,”? said World ORT Chief Programme Officer Vladimir Dribinskiy.
In the Latvian capital, Riga, for example the number of new students at the Dubnov Jewish School is more than double last year’s intake of 15, taking the total number of students to 235 in a community of just 10,000. The children are learning in a new, centrally-located building provided by public funds and boasting state-of-the-art ICT, science and robotics labs installed by World ORT.
In neighbouring Lithuania, the ranking of ORT Shalom Aleichem School (the only school in the Baltic state to have advanced “intelligent laboratories”?, provided by World ORT), as one of the country’s best schools has enabled it to maintain its intake at a time when the national school population is dropping. However, budget issues have limited its operating capacity to 275 students meaning that some Jewish children are forced to attend other, non-Jewish schools.
And the number of students at the two ORT schools in Kishinev, Moldova has surged from 642 to 719. The majority of the increase was seen at the ORT Herzl Technology Lyceum, which in 2008 was recognized as the country’s leading educational institution. Almost all the school’s graduates are accepted into university, 80 per cent of them winning state scholarships because of their high standard. No wonder that it was the only Moldovan school chosen by Microsoft for one of its international educational initiatives. In addition, more than 500 ORT Herzl alumni have made aliyah over the past decade.
Which makes the potential outcome of the on-going financial crisis all the more tragic.
In March, hopes were raised when Israeli Deputy Education Minister Eliezer Moses told a Knesset committee that he had spoken to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of the need to restore the Heftsiba budget. The Chair of the committee, Danny Danon, said he would press for the necessary budget increases. However, no money has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the lack of funds means that ORT is straining to meet the obvious demand within the FSU’s Jewish communities for its type of practical education which has produced many highly qualified immigrants to Israel.