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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Newly-elected Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky will travel to Moscow on Monday to mark the opening of the new school year for Jewish learning institutions in the Russian capital and attempt to raise money for the agency's programs in the FSU.
It will be the former Soviet dissident and Prisoner of Zion's first official visit to the former Soviet Union since his election to the position of chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency in June.
Sharansky is scheduled to meet with the leadership of the Moscow Jewish community, including Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar, senator and chairman of the World Congress of Russian Jewry Boris Spiegel, as well as Ambassador to Russia Anna Azri. He will also tour the various Jewish Agency-run programs for Jewish-Zionist education.
According to the Jewish Agency, Sharansky will meet with Russian Jewish philanthropists and is "pleased that many more of them have shown willingness to assist in building Jewish institutions and strengthening Jewish identity in the FSU."
The visit falls under a dark shadow, however, as the agency's funding is under serious strain, putting its programs in the FSU in risk.
According to JTA, formal Jewish education in the region is very much imperiled. Aside from the Jewish Agency cuts to Heftzibah, the school system of Chabad - perhaps the biggest Jewish player in the region - is hurting. It has been heavily financed by Lev Leviev, the diamond mogul who saw his stock plummet by 90 percent, losing him $500 million over the past year. Another school system, Shma Yisrael, which had been heavily financed by the Reichmann family of Canada, also is dealing with financial difficulties.
The Heftzibah, Chabad and Shma Yisrael systems all received $12 million in aid from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that raises money from evangelical Christians to support Israeli and Jewish causes.
Sharansky's appeal to Russian Jewish oligarchs and philanthropists comes at a time when the agency's traditional source of funding, the American Jewish federation system, is reeling due to the world financial crisis, the Madoff scandal, and more localized Jewish philanthropy.
Furthermore, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [JDC], which focuses its efforts in the former Soviet Union on delivering social services and community-building activities, is facing a significant budget deficit.
According to JTA, Steven Schwager, the chief executive officer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Irv Smokler, its president, sent a joint letter last Friday to the top professionals at Jewish federations across North America saying the JDC was in dire need of more money from them.
The organization already has had to cut services overseas, specifically in the former Soviet Union, and it might have to cut more, the letter warned.
JTA also revealed that in a previously undisclosed internal Jewish Agency report in May, the Agency's treasurer informed the organization's executive committee that programming in the former Soviet Union might have to be abandoned due to severe budget constraints.
The combination of cuts to both formal Jewish education and social services could significantly undermine what has been a 20-year process to build up Jewish life in the former Soviet Union since the fall of Communism, JTA said.
"For 20 years the Jewish Agency worked to connect thousands of Jews to their [religious] roots in the FSU. Together with the government of Israel and the Fellowship of Christians and Jews, we will work to expand this important activity," Sharansky said before his trip.
According to the agency, Sharansky has decided not to continue to implement cuts to the organization's activities in the FSU, home to several hundreds of thousands of Jews. This visit is meant to find ways of expanding the agency's operations in the FSU in the spheres of Jewish-Zionist education among the youth.
Sources familiar with the workings of the Russian-Jewish educational system told The Jerusalem Post that Sharansky would have a hard time raising funds among Russian philanthropists, as the amounts the Jewish Agency requires to keep its operations going are too high for individual donors to sustain.
The sources said Sharansky should instead use his prestige and position to look for partnerships among international Jewish organizations to work together on agency programs.
In November 2008, the agency passed a budget that included $45m. in cuts, with much of the savings coming from programs in the former Soviet Union. The agency slashed $1.9m. from its Jewish Identity budget for the region, leaving just $431,000.
The agency has also reduced its funding of Heftzibah, a partnership with the Israeli Education Ministry that includes a network of 44 Jewish day schools across the former Soviet Union with more than 10,000 students.
Heftzibah had its budget cut in November from nearly $13m. to just over $5m. Now the budget is slated to be $2.6m. for the coming school year.
According to JTA, the agency carries out its next scheduled round of cuts for 2010, it will have reduced its overall budget by about $80m. over the past several years.
Agency officials say the cuts have come uniformly around the world, but unlike other regions where local donors have been able to pick up some of the slack, the Jewish Agency has been unable to find local philanthropists in the former Soviet Union willing to do so.
Sharansky will open the school year at the Lipman Jewish Day School in Moscow, giving an open lesson to students. The subject of his lesson will be "The History of the Zionist Struggle in the USSR," and the lesson will be shown via video-conference link-up to three additional Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union: in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania; Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and St. Petersburg.
These four schools are part of a network of 44 Jewish schools spread out across the FSU taking part in the Heftzibah formal Jewish education program.
On September 1, some 13,000 Jewish children in 100 schools across the FSU formally start the 2009-2010 school year.
For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs