(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Evangelical Christian contributions are coming to the rescue of the flagship Jewish education programs in the former Soviet Union.
With an infusion of some NIS 40 million, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) will allow welfare and education programs in Jewish schools throughout the FSU to survive a year that has seen drastic cutbacks.
"We understand the situation the Jewish Agency and other Jewish philanthropic organizations have found themselves in following the global economic crisis," said IFCJ president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
"The IFCJ is happy to be able to offer its aid in these difficult times in order to strengthen the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union. The IFCJ has always espoused the cause of strengthening the social fabric of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora." Some NIS 3.5m. will go to saving Heftsiba, the flagship Israeli government-funded program for Jewish and Zionist education in the FSU, which funds additional teaching hours, Hebrew classes and identity studies in existing Jewish schools.
Some 10,000 schoolchildren in 45 schools participate in the program. The schools belong to the three major Jewish education networks in the FSU: Or Avner, ORT and Shema Israel.
Until today, it was a shared project of the Jewish Agency and the Education Ministry, but its existence was called into question last month after the Jewish Agency was forced to withdraw its support for the program due to a 10 percent cut in the agency's 2009 budget, a cut amounting to some $45m.
The agency's pullout followed a multiyear decline in Heftsiba's funding that stripped away some 66% of the funds the program received from the Israeli government, according to Yohanan Ben-Ya'acov, director of Heftsiba in the Education Ministry.
In December, Ben-Ya'acov warned that if Heftsiba were to close its doors in 2009, it might not be possible to revive it in the future.
"Heftsiba was put together at a moment of opportunity that won't repeat itself, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse before [the FSU countries] reestablished their institutions. To rebuild it now, in today's institutional framework in these countries, would be impossible," he said.
As the Israeli funding dried up, many schools scaled back meals and bus transportation, necessary services for schools serving communities scattered across immense urban sprawls and teaching a curriculum that demands long school days.
According to the Prime Minister's Office, the IFCJ stepped in to replace the Jewish Agency as co-funder of the program after an appeal from Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel.
Internal IFCJ discussions were held to decide if the request met the intent of the Christian donors, who contribute out of a religious conviction calling on them to help Israel and the Jews. But given the welfare component, it was decided that the emergency aid to the programs fit the organization's mission.
"When the Jewish Agency announced it was stopping its funding of the project, there was genuine concern for the continued operation of the school networks and a subsequent hindering of the need to preserve Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union," said Yehezkel.
"I am glad that Rabbi Eckstein sees eye to eye with the state of Israel concerning the support of this important project. The IFCJ's support at a time like this is a real saving grace."
The rest of the funds to given by the fellowship will go to welfare assistance to Jewish families and schoolchildren in the FSU. NIS 24m. will be given through the Federation of Jewish Communities to the Or Avner network to fund the basic needs of many pupils in the Jewish schools, including special bus routes, basic medicines, shoes, lunches and backpacks.
Another NIS 12m. will go to JDC programs to help makeup budgetary shortfalls in welfare services for children and orphans.