Principals of ORT schools in the Former Soviet Union have expressed their gratitude to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) for continuing its support of Jewish school networks in the region.
ORT’s 18 schools in the FSU have been struggling to maintain their Jewish identity since the cash-strapped Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) announced in 2008 that it was stopping its $2 million funding for the Heftsiba programme, which provides Jewish Studies, hot lunches, school buses and salary top-ups for teachers.
Despite emergency cash injections from the IFCJ and the Israeli Government over the months, the future was looking particularly bleak and World ORT was recently compelled to take out loans to help the schools. Now, the coming academic year at least looks assured thanks to the IFCJ’s $1.1 million donation to ORT and two other Jewish school networks, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael. “I want to say thank you very much on behalf of all students, teachers and administrators,”? said Dr Marina Moiseeva, Principal of the Moscow ORT Technology School, her sentiments representative of her peers’. “The IFCJ has given us the chance to keep the school an isle of stability, protection and friendship. When we ask parents why they bring kids to our school they often say because this is the place where their kids will be loved and cared for. So, thanks to the IFCJ and its supporters for preserving this loving, caring environment for Jewish children.”?
The IFCJ money will only be used to pay for the social needs components of Heftsiba: hot lunches and school buses are vital if Jewish children, who face long days because of the enriched curriculum and the long commute between school and home, are to be physically capable of attending.
But in doing so, money from the schools’ budgets can be freed up to pay for other neglected necessities.
Yuri Kinkov, Principal of the ORT Kiev Technology Lyceum, said he was looking forward to being able to reward the quality teachers who have taken his school to new heights of excellence.
“Paying our teachers has been a huge problem,”? Mr Kinkov said. “Lyceum teachers are the elite of their profession, we have to recognise this financially or else they will go to work at other schools and that would result in our losing students. After a decade of hard work the Lyceum is recognised as a leading educational institution and it is in demand. Currently, the Lyceum needs another physics teacher and two more Hebrew teachers but we haven’t been able to recruit because of the lack of money.”?
Low pay plagues teachers in the FSU and the ability to top-up salaries can make a school by attracting top professionals. The funding crisis has seen five teachers leave Moscow ORT Technology College over the past two years.
“They were not happy that we could not give them a pay rise,”? Dr Moiseeva said. “And, although we are very happy to hear of this latest financial assistance it only covers one academic year. When we enrol students at the age of 11 it is with the intention of educating them for another seven years. But each year the uncertainty over funding means we can build curricula with only the next nine months in mind. We are always at risk of losing teachers who, fearing that we may not be able to renew their contracts after the current year, may opt for stability elsewhere.”?
Thanks to the IFCJ, Dr Moiseeva will be able to budget for classes in Jewish history and tradition, the geography of Israel and add further Hebrew lessons. Money will be freed up to pay teachers in the Jewish Studies department for the additional workload and probably the hiring of an additional Hebrew teacher.
“Thanks to the IFCJ, Jewish life at the school will be more active and diverse,”? she said.
This comes after a period of significant downsizing of the school’s Jewish component with little or no money to pay for Shabbatons and other extra curricular activities which have been very attractive to families who are engaging with their religion and culture now that the restrictions of the Soviet era are history.
“Most of our students are from low-income families and parents have traditionally relied on these Jewish activities being free,”? Dr Moiseeva said. “Parents can’t afford to pay for their children to attend Shabbatons or to sing in the choir. And if we can’t provide these things then they may be tempted by the superior sports facilities, cafeteria or other facilities that exist in the many good non-Jewish schools in Moscow. That is the competitive reality in which we work.”?
The IFCJ’s announcement of the $1.1 million donation, which brings the organisation’s support for Heftsiba to $3 million over two years, comes in the wake of JAFI’s adoption of a strategic plan that calls for supporting programmes like Heftsiba which enables young Jews to “connect with their people, heritage and land, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel”?.
World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said that, on behalf of the 6,000 children at the ORT schools in the CIS and Baltic States, he was deeply grateful to IFCJ Founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein for stepping forward to help.
“For the third year running Rabbi Eckstein has opened his heart and is responsible for the continued education for our children as well as many more in the Or Avner and Shema Israel networks,”? Mr Singer said. “But we must stress the need for a long term solution to this crisis and look forward to the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Education continuing their partnership with us and the other networks in the region with this in mind.”?
Rabbi Eckstein said the IFCJ contributed more than $25 million a year to help the Jewish communities in the FSU.
“While we feel privileged to do so, ultimately the costs of Jewish education and welfare of the children, who represent the future of Jewish peoplehood in the FSU, should be borne by the world Jewish community and we commend [JAFI Chairman Natan] Sharansky and the Jewish Agency for pledging to undertake this effort,”? he said.