Ofek program in danger of closing

Owing to the steady decline of the dollar, Ofek, an Israeli gateway program for youngsters from the FSU, is facing a catastrophe in its budget.

Jewish Agency money 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish Agency money 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Growing up in the Ukraine wasn't easy for Anastasia Chkyler. At age 11, she lost her mother. Her father, who never remarried, died of cancer when she was just 18. After her father's passing, Anastasia, or Nastia, as some of her friends call her, began to study applied linguistics at a local college in Odessa. Soon after the initiation of her studies, she began to yearn for a change in direction. What she needed, she says, was to leave the Ukraine and connect to something higher. "The biggest gift my parents gave me, before they left, was my Judaism. So I wanted to come to Israel and explore my roots," says Nastia in heavily-accented Hebrew. In the fall of 2007, with not much more than a Hryvnia (about $0.2) to her name, Nastia embarked on a quest to find the cheapest way possible to get to Israel. Eventually she found Ofek, a group that provides full scholarships to young people from former USSR (Soviet Union) countries to come to Israel. Today, seven months since her arrival, Nastia has already made aliya. In an interview, Nastia's manner of speech and enthusiasm exude a transparent eagerness to take root in Israeli society. But she may well belong to the last group privileged with such an opportunity. This year, owing to the steady decline of the dollar, Ofek is facing a catastrophe in its budget, risking closure or a major reduction of attendees. "The Ofek project is committed to various expenses at the moment, and because it closed last year in a deficit, it will have to shut down if it can't acquire extra funding," says Nehemia Rafel, secretary of the Kibbutz Hadati Movement. The crisis that is occurring for Ofek - a program directed by the Ya'acov-Herzog Center, an initiative of Kibbutz Hadati and funded by Masa, a joint project of the government and the Jewish Agency - is yet another indirect consequence of the steady decline of the dollar. Mainly funded by US dollars coming from abroad via the Jewish Agency, the program incurs most of its expenses in shekels. Therefore, the budget that was just right to subsidize young people for one-semester and one-year programs is now in dire need of an upgrade. Without accounting for inflation, the group's budget decreased by about 20 percent of its value since 2004, when each dollar was worth about NIS 4.5, compared to about NIS 3.5 today. "With the beginning of the new year, our program is facing a major catastrophe," says Gili Zivan, executive director of the Ya'acov-Herzog Center. "Every year we help to fund low-income students from Russia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan… But now, because our budget is in dollars, we will have to tell students to pay more money or stay at home." It would be a sad story for proponents of aliya and Jewish revival in the Diaspora if the program has to shut down, she says. "Our program is a gateway for Judaism and for discovering Israel," Zivan says. "Students come to volunteer, learn Hebrew and Judaism, and to participate in internships. Every year, many of these students decide to make aliya following their program at Ofek." Since 2004, with the birth of Masa, Ofek has welcomed about 30 students annually. Its aim is to give religious and secular Jews alike, an opportunity to revive their relationship to Israel and Judaism. "There are many programs that give such opportunities to North Americans," Zivan says. "Our group reaches out to the under-represented Jewry in the former USSR." According to the World Jewish Population Survey, there are currently about 400,000 Jews living in the former USSR. Last week, Zivan's formal appeal to the Jewish Agency for an increase in funding was turned down. "Unfortunately, while we appreciate Ofek's importance as an initiative for Russian-speaking Jews, with the decline of the dollar, the value of our budget for the project also decreases and there's no action we can take to combat this worldwide economic trend," says Ayelet Shilo-Tamir, executive director of Masa's projects. "Through good will and much appreciation for the project's significance, we will make the best possible effort to help them to secure proper funding," she says. In limbo at the moment, project Ofek is now appealing to private donors for an extra sum of about $150,000 to offset its higher expenses. Meanwhile, Nastia decided that she will be going back to school. Being in Israel, however, has made her change her academic interests. She now wants to study political science. "I feel like I'm standing strong on my two feet again," she says. "Coming to Israel has helped me broaden my horizons and gain a better world view. It's only been seven months, but it feels like home here."