Reviving Jewish life in the Diaspora – if not now, never

Former Israeli diplomat and regional representative of Jewish education NGO says if we don't act now to connect Jews in the Diaspora to their roots, their children and grandchildren will be lost to the Jewish people.

 David Benish  521 (photo credit: courtesy)
David Benish 521
(photo credit: courtesy)

Born in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), former Israeli diplomat David Benish grasped the opportunity to make an impact in this area, by re-connecting Jews to their roots and Israel through education. World ORT Representative in the CIS and Baltic States Benish discusses with The Jerusalem Post the organization's goals, achievements and plans for the future.

How did you get involved in World ORT?

I worked for the Israeli government (Nativ) in the region of the FSU since 1996. Being an Israeli diplomat I had connections to Jewish schools and Jewish education in the FSU, through which I got acquainted with World ORT activities in those states. In 2008 I moved to work for World ORT.

Why have you chosen to work in your regions of focus in particular?

I was born in the FSU but raised in Israel. After the fall of the Iron Curtain I felt that there was an opportunity for me to take part in the historical process of reviving Jewish life in that area and to contribute to aliya to Israel.

Where are you based?
In Kiev; most of my time is devoted to the main offices in the FSU - Moscow and Kiev. Actually, I travel a lot – usually, once or twice a week I travel to one of the 40 locations of World ORT activities in the FSU.
What are the organization's guiding principles?
World ORT activities all over the world are for everybody who can benefit from them – Jewish and non-Jewish. In the FSU the activities are mainly for the Jewish population. World ORT is dealing with education in the wider sense of it – formal and informal, for children, youngsters, young adults and seniors, teaching and training. The main guideline and the organization’s slogan is: Educating for Life. We help everybody to become self-sufficient.

What are the main projects you are currently working on?

World ORT has activities in ten of the FSU countries. The main projects in the FSU include: 17 Jewish full-day schools in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Kirgizia; over 20 small communities’ technological centers (in ten countries – operating in cooperation with Jewish communities and other Jewish organizations); vocational training centers in Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

There are many other smaller projects such as single mothers’ training in Kishinev, and Sunday school in Yerevan.

Why is it important that World ORT be a Jewish organization?
During its almost 80 years of existence, the Soviet regime managed to disconnect most of the Jewish population from its roots and traditions. Being a Jewish organization dealing with education, World ORT is reviving Jewish life and Jewish self-identification in the FSU and, crucially, connecting Jews with Israel. Even now, most Jews in the FSU are not affiliated; they don’t even try to be involved with any Jewish activities, Jewish organizations or Israel-related activities. World ORT’s schools, which are secular, are renowned for their level of scientific and technology studies and so attract children from these unaffiliated families, introducing them to Israel and Hebrew, Jewish tradition etc., bringing them closer to their Jewish roots.

Experience shows that usually within two-three years, our pupils identify as Jewish and start involving their families and extended families with Judaism. Through every such child many family members establish their connection to their Jewish roots and start being involved with Jewish organizations and communities.

How closely do you work with Israel?

There are many links between Israel and World ORT activities in the FSU. World ORT operates directly in Israel under the name Kadima Mada,and World ORT works in the day schools in the FSU in cooperation with the Israeli Education Ministry, together sharing responsibility for Jewish education. There are also various projects and informal education liaising between World ORT schools in the FSU and Israel, such as twinning programs, and participation of children from the schools in the FSU in training, Olympiads, competitions etc. in Israel (e.g. the Robotraffic competition at the Technion).

What drives you in your work?
Mainly the feeling that we really make a difference in the lives of Jewish children in the FSU – and the understanding that we have to reach this generation: Hillel’s words – "If not now, when?" – don’t apply. It’s a case of "if not now, never." If we don’t make an impact now then those Jews who are unaffiliated will remain disconnected from Judaism and Jewish activities and their children and grandchildren will finally be lost to the Jewish People. In the 90s when the number of olim from the FSU was very high, for me doing consular work for aliya was extremely important and now that times have changed and the number of olim has dropped significantly, I feel that the main contribution we can make is through education.

What has been your biggest achievement to date in your work at World ORT?

Every child who leaves our schools with a sense of pride in being Jewish and confidence in their ability to make a future for themselves is an immeasurable achievement. But education is long-term process and we often don’t get to see our achievements until years down the track. In general, however, I get profound satisfaction from seeing the increasing number of our school and training graduates find their place in the Jewish community and being able to contribute to them. And I delight in seeing our students and graduates making their way to Israel, strengthening the country and forging new bonds between Israel and the Diaspora.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
Where do I begin?! Operating in ten countries means dealing with ten different systems of education and management, each with its own goals and interests that are not necessarily supportive of Israel, Jewish organizations and education. Convincing politicians and functionaries to let your organization promote its goals is not easy. But we’ve managed so far and we aim to continue this success.
What have you in store for the future?
Serving Jewish communities by investing in their future we see as our mission, and thus extending the structure to cover more areas in the FSU, from Europe to Birobidjan, outreaching to more and more Jewish communities is one of the main goals. We are also continuously examining the education needs of Jewish communities all over the FSU and trying to raise funds in order to meet these needs. Our experience shows that the communities need day-schools but also vocational training, formal education and enrichment activities, etc. Each place is unique, and needs differ from place to place - we try to serve each community in the best way we can by tailoring the solutions. For example, at the ORT Moscow Lyceum ten percent of the students have special needs (in Russia normal schools usually don’t accept students with special needs), or in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, there are many single mothers who cannot return to the labor market at a level that suits their intellect and abilities due to the absence of updated computer literacy and languages training – giving them the proper training makes a huge difference in their life, perspectives and abilities for self-sufficiency.
Is there a specific goal you wish to achieve?
We have come a long way since bringing World ORT back to the FSU some 60 years after [late leader of the Soviet Union Joseph] Stalin swept us away. We make a critical difference to the lives of thousands of Jews every day. Yet, sometimes, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the realization that we could be doing so much more, reaching out to so many more children, adults and families – if only we had the money. I would like to see more wealthy Jews in the FSU take on the responsibility of financing educational activities in the region. For most people life is a struggle; but a few have done very well out of the economic liberalization of recent years and I want to help them understand the joy they can bring to themselves and others by taking an active role in sharing some of their success so that others can also be successful.
For instance, we have had trouble funding Jewish full-day schools in the FSU, which were established at the beginning of the 90s. The schools are operated by World ORT educational networks (the only secular network), Or-Avner (Chabad) and Shema-Israel in cooperation with the Israeli Education Ministry and Education Ministries in the countries of operation. While the educational network takes care of all aspects of the operation of the school, the Israeli Education Ministry is involved with the Jewish education in the schools. Already, in the early 90s, it was clear that in order to attract Jewish children from unaffiliated families to Jewish schools and have effective Jewish education, there was a need to have financial support for those.
Thus, the Israeli government took upon itself the responsibility to finance components that would promote Jewish education: salaries for local teachers of Hebrew and Jewish subjects; transportation to the schools; meals; security and informal education. The Israeli Education Ministry also sends teachers from Israel to the Jewish schools. In 2003 the ministry cut down on 50% of their budget by taking on a partner – the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). According to the agreement which began in 2003, JAFI paid for the salaries of local teachers, and social needs. In August 2008 JAFI announced that due to strains on their resources they couldn't continue financing the project. Unfortunately, since then, Jewish schools have struggled to maintain Jewish education and have had to cut down on teaching hours of Jewish subjects and social needs.

Another effect of the funding cut was a loss of subsidized bus services which led to the immediate loss of 20% of the children at the World ORT Odessa school because their parents could no longer send them to the Jewish school. So, since September 2008, the whole system of Jewish education in the FSU has been dangerously unstable, struggling to find sufficient financing for maintaining Jewish education for the future of the Jewish communities and strengthening their connection with the State of Israel.

Since then, the only serious and long-term committed donor supporting Jewish education is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). Being a welfare organization the IFCJ can and does support the social needs for the Jewish schools but by definition the organization cannot finance salaries for the local teachers of Jewish studies. In a meeting a few weeks ago with the founder and president of the organization, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, he expressed deep concern about the future of Jewish education and the Jewish future of the next generation of children from families with Jewish roots. He reconfirmed the organization’s solid financing for the social needs, but we feel that not only Christians need to be responsible for this – the Jewish world must take more responsibility for Jewish education in the FSU.