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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The global economic turmoil, combined with the fallout from the Madoff investment scam, could have dire consequences for all the work of Jewish social welfare organizations in the former Soviet Union, warns Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
"It could put all the work done over the past 20 years into jeopardy," says Eckstein, who has worked in the philanthropic field for the past 15 years and currently sits on the boards of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the United Jewish Appeal/Keren Hayesod.
"Jewish schools run by Chabad, which previously received the bulk of their funding from individual millionaires, such as Russian oligarch Lev Leviev, may be forced to close down; JAFI is being forced to slash $45 million off its budget; and Jewish community federations [which provide funding to the United Jewish Communities and the JDC] are reporting lower donations. Any cutbacks to the work out there will have dire effects on an aging community and for the younger generation that will, eventually, hopefully be able to help rebuild individual communities."
"The economic situation is like a tsunami," says Prof. Eliezer Jaffe of Hebrew University's School of Social Work, chairman of the non-profit Israel Free Loans Association. "We still are not sure exactly what the outcome will be. In the meantime, major donors and large foundations have put a lot of activities on hold as they assess their financial situation."
As soon as stories of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi investment scheme hit the headlines earlier this month, two large Jewish foundations - the Chais Family Foundation and the Robert I. Lappin Foundation - that funded projects in Israel and to strengthen Jewish identity worldwide announced that their funds had been wiped out. Last week, Hadassah said that it had lost close to $100m. in the scam. Other, smaller, non-profits also lost money.
Earlier this week, The Jerusalem Post reported that Jewish educational programs in the former Soviet Union were in danger of collapsing because of the economic turmoil. Institutions such as the Israeli-government funded Heftsiba, which supports 45 Jewish schools, and the JAFI-run Na'aleh, which brings some 1,200 young Jews to Israel each year, are starting to feel the pinch.
"This situation is a real tragedy for Israeli and Jewish life worldwide," says Eckstein. "The economic crisis for these organizations started a few months ago with the falling value of the dollar and now, with this scandal, the situation is potentially even worse for them."
In the meantime, JDC CEO Steven Schwager says the situation for his organization, which runs a large portion of welfare programs in Georgia, is not dire. He estimates that only $40m. of the JDC's $300m. budget is no longer secure due to the economic situation, including the fallout of the Madoff affair.
"If we do go down by a few million, then we will have to decide what to do, but this week our board concluded that in spite of the situation our budget for 2009 is reflective of this year's amount," he says.