Israel’s new Deputy Education Minister, Eliezer Moses, has raised hopes that state funding for Jewish schools in the Former Soviet Union will be restored to its 1991 level “ﾓ an increase of more than 500 per cent on current spending according to his own figures.
Mr Moses’ remarks at last week’s meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs have created a surge of excitement among personnel throughout ORT, who are now hopeful that they can reverse heartbreaking cutbacks at the organisation’s network in the region of 17 schools serving more than 6,000 children.
“I wholeheartedly welcome what the Deputy Minister said “ﾓ but not only me, all of us who are involved in Jewish education here welcome it. We have spent years in an increasingly gloomy tunnel of funding cuts and now here is the light at the end of it,”? said David Benish, World ORT Representative in the CIS, Central Asia, Caucasian States and Baltic States.
The optimism stems from the Knesset committee’s discussion of the Heftsiba programme, which channels financial and material support to the ORT, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael school networks to meet their Hebrew and Jewish Studies faculties’ social needs and salary top-ups for teachers as well as provision of Israeli teachers.
Deputy Minister Moses told the Committee that since the programme’s creation in 1991 “ﾓ in which World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer played a prominent part as deputy head of Nativ “ﾓ Heftsiba’s budget has shrunk from NIS 48 million to a meagre NIS 8 million today.
The cuts have resulted in severe reductions in the provision of school transport and hot meals and a dramatic downgrading of Hebrew teaching and Jewish Studies; the former are important to enable Jewish children to attend the school as many of them have to travel long distances, and the latter are essential in restoring Jewish identity to communities following decades of official anti-religious policy.
At last week’s meeting, the Chair of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, Danny Danon, asked the Deputy Minister how the Heftsiba budget could be increased, to which Mr Moses replied: “I have been in talks with the [Education] Minister [Gideon Sa’ar] since I came to office on the subject of Jewish education in the Diaspora. I think our goal should be to reach what we had 20 years ago.”?
At the end of the meeting, Mr Danon called on the Minister of Education, who is known to be sympathetic to the plight of Jewish education in the FSU, to return Heftsiba’s reduced budget to its original amount.
He told World ORT this week: “It’s a proven programme… I think it’s part of the Jewish national role to take care of Jewish education and identity. The same way we finance Birthright and MASA I think we should do the same with Heftsiba.”?
While it was up to the Minister and Deputy Minister of Education to see it through, Mr Danon said that as Chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs he would overlook their action on this issue.
“I will continue to press them to restore funding,”? he said. “We want it to happen for the beginning of the next school year and I hope that will happen.”?
Mr Singer welcomed the discussion of Heftsiba at the Knesset Committee.
“Thousands of graduates of this system have made aliyah and those who remained have become very active members of the Jewish community there. So we know the results; we know it works,”? he said. “But we’re at a critical juncture; the situation can’t continue as it is so we’re very happy that the issue was brought to parliament. We hope that all parties involved, the Government, the Jewish Agency, and the Knesset, will succeed in coming together and not let this system collapse.”?
World ORT was struggling to uphold its obligations under Heftsiba and was grateful to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) for it providing emergency funding in recent years.
He emphasised that a dependable budget, set at a realistic level, was necessary to create the stability required by education, which was a long-term process.
But Heftsiba was an investment which would ultimately create conditions for its own redundancy as those who have benefited from the Jewish schools supported by Heftsiba emerge from university and progress in their careers.
“In another 10 years we will start to see these graduates take over financial responsibilities for the education system which helped them,”? Mr Singer said.
Also at the Committee meeting was Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
JAFI has also warmly welcomed Deputy Minister Moses’ stated goal of restoring Heftsiba’s funding.
“There are few people in the world that are as urgently in need of world Jewry’s help in terms of their education as the communities in the Former Soviet Union and, of course, Germany, 90 per cent of whose community are former Soviet Jews,”? said JAFI spokesman Haviv Rettig Gur.
“Israel recognises that it has as much responsibility as other Jews and we welcome this statement and hope that it develops into a robust work plan that sees a flowering of Jewish education in the FSU with all partners.”?