Cash crunch hits FSU Jewish learning programs

Cuts make Heftsiba project's future unclear; Leviev network calls on Jerusalem to make up the shortfall.

russian synagogue 248 88 (photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
russian synagogue 248 88
(photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Jewish education programs in the former Soviet Union are in danger of collapse as Israel government funding dries up and the global economic crisis threatens its main donors. The most at-risk institution is the Heftsiba project, an Israeli government-funded program in 45 schools that provides funds, curricula and teachers from Israel for Jewish and Zionist education. Some 10,000 children in Russia and Ukraine participate in the program, but senior officials in the Education Ministry cannot say how long that will continue. About two-thirds of Heftsiba's state funding has been cut in the past few years as the Education Ministry has seen its overall budget reduced and transferred much of the responsibility for the program's funding and operation to the Jewish Agency. With the agency facing a 10 percent budget cut itself for the coming year, or some $45 million, it is unclear if Heftsiba will survive for very long without new sources of funding. "We have to cut funds even for our most sacred projects, but we're not going to close them down," an agency spokesman promised on Thursday. Heftsiba's funding would continue, he said, but not from the agency's core budget. It is currently seeking "targeted" donations that would cover the agency's share of Heftsiba's budget without dipping into the shrinking core. Faced with a real threat of Heftsiba's closure, officials in the agency and the government are discussing the issue "at the highest levels," according to Yochanan Ben-Ya'acov, director of Heftsiba in the Education Ministry. "In such a tough situation [for the FSU Jewish community], to lose an infrastructure for 10,000 kids, to say Israel is leaving them behind, is not an acceptable scenario," Ben-Ya'acov said. "If it closes because it's a bad year, can it be restored 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. Many Jewish schools have scaled back meals and bus transportation, both necessary services for institutions serving vast urban regions with a curriculum that demands long school days. "Children are going to stop coming, and teachers are already leaving," Ben-Ya'acov said. Another program feeling the pressure of massive Jewish Agency budget cuts is Na'aleh, which brings some 1,200 young FSU Jews to Israel each year, a majority of whom end up making aliya. A Na'aleh representative said the agency planned to cancel the program entirely, and that program emissaries in FSU countries are being told to ask parents to sign a form acknowledging that the program for which they were registering their children may not take place. "If the money isn't there, we think the government should make up what's missing," the representative said. "If we don't have an approved budget by the end of the month, we won't be able to send recruiters to the public fairs in Russia. This would be a massive blow to aliya from Russia." A Jewish Agency spokesman said both Heftsiba and Na'aleh would continue. "We're looking into ways to be more efficient," the spokesman said. "We were considering scaling back Jewish Agency participation in Na'aleh, so we froze the program until a decision was made. "After looking into the matter carefully, the agency decided the project would continue. We are now in contact with the Education Ministry, our main partner in the project, to ensure that this happens." The Jewish Agency provides the majority of the funds for Na'aleh, some $5m. annually. The financial stress has also been felt in some 70 institutions funded by the Ohr Avner Foundation, founded by billionaire Israeli diamond and real estate mogul Lev Leviev. The Ohr Avner network includes Jewish kindergartens, schools and summer camps. According to a source familiar with the foundation's situation, only two of these institutions will be closed as the network looks to survive while its benefactor takes a savage beating in the world markets. Estimates have placed Leviev's recent losses at 60% of his net worth. He is chairman of the board of directors of Africa Israel Investments Limited, and lives in England. After Israeli media reports that Leviev's FSU network was threatened with insolvency, a Leviev spokesman denied the report, saying the network was financially secure, even if some cuts would have to be made. "We think it's the Israeli government's responsibility not to leave Mr. Leviev the last player in the field," said a spokesman for the foundation. "The Israeli government promised to maintain Jewish education in the former Soviet Union and we're asking that it step in and fulfill that promise," the spokesman continued. "Budgets have been cut in the past few years that are endangering the institutions there, and this was done without any kind of public debate." "I am convinced that, in principle, Jewish education in the Diaspora is the sole responsibility of the State of Israel," Emanuel Mehl, director of the Jewish Communities Department in the Foreign Ministry, wrote to a representative of Ohr Avner. "I believe we will succeed."