'Israel holding money that could save Jewish schools in FSU'

"They claim all kinds of bureaucratic problems, and meanwhile these schools are not getting their funding," Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein says.

rabbi yechiel eckstein 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rabbi yechiel eckstein 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A network of some 42 Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union are in danger of closing, because the Israeli government hasn't paid money it had pledged to keep them afloat, according to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is trying to help save the schools. Some of the schools also serve as orphanages and if closed may leave thousands of Jewish children on the streets. The issue was first raised by The Fundamentalist blog. The Heftsiba network is a combination of the ORT, Or Avner (Chabad) and Shema Yisrael school systems. For more than 30 years Heftsiba has provided education to Jewish children in what is now the former Soviet Union. The network is in danger of closing it doors if it does not receive additional funds. The Education Ministry managed Heftsiba for 20 years, but two years ago the government passed the job on to the Jewish Agency - a move that has drawn fire from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), who is heading the effort to save the schools. "This symbolically meant that the government of Israel was passing on the responsibility to care for the Jewish identity of the youth in the former Soviet Union, and it became a world Jewry issue," Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post late last week. In February, the economic crisis dealt a heavy blow to the Jewish Agency, which then lacked the wherewithal to pay the $2 million needed to support the Heftsiba schools through the summer, and the various schools were going to shut their doors. At that point, Eckstein and the IFCJ stepped in and made a deal with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to match up to $2.5m. in government funds for a total of $5m., in order to keep the schools afloat until June, but the government only authorized $1m. "We matched the government's $1m., but it's now July and the government money has still not been distributed. They claim all kinds of bureaucratic problems, and meanwhile these schools are not getting their funding and are in danger of closing," Eckstein said. At a meeting of the Knesset's Immigrant Absorption Committee in January attended by Eckstein, government representatives said the state would contribute a total of $2m. to be matched by the fellowship, but Eckstein remains skeptical. "I don't believe them, I can't trust the government to pay the entire $2m. when it hasn't even paid the $1m. since it made its commitment six months ago," Eckstein said on Thursday. At the meeting, then-cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel expressed the government's desire to help the schools, but noted financial obstacles. "The idea at the moment is for the government to guarantee a sum of NIS 3.5m.," said Yehezkel. "It is very difficult for the government these days to guarantee such a sum, we are in need of a bailout, and no one will let Heftsiba close down." Despite the pledge, Avi Widerman, a former adviser to Olmert who is authorized to speak for Yehezkel, says that because a new government is now in place, nothing is guaranteed. "When we pledged we really wanted them to get the money, and we had the money," Widerman said. "But now it's another [state] budget and another government and we can't guarantee everything, but when we did it was very sincere." The Chabad and Shema Yisrael school systems have received funding from the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency in the past, but have also been supported by major philanthropists. Because of the financial crisis, these schools have not been receiving the funding usually appropriated to them, and IFCJ stepped in to support them through the summer. One possible scenario would be that the fellowship would end up supporting all three networks come September - Heftsiba and the remaining Chabad and Shema Yisrael schools not incorporated into Heftsiba. Eckstein considers this a task for world Jewry, not the fellowship. "I imagine that come September we will support all three networks, but this shouldn't be the responsibility of Christian Americans. We are glad to do our part and help, but we need partners, including the government of Israel, which is the embodiment of world Jewry," he said. If the schools do not receive the appropriate funding, than an entire generation of children in the former Soviet Union would lose not only their Jewish identity, but also a means of survival, he said. "The danger is that everything that has been built in the past 30 years is now in jeopardy and is imploding, it's all in jeopardy. If we lose it, that's it for that generation and that means the future of the Jewish world in the former Soviet Union," said Eckstein.