FSU schools facing budget axe

Students at the Levi Yitzhak Schneerson School in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. (Lev Krichevsky)

Students at the Levi Yitzhak Schneerson School in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. (Lev Krichevsky)

MOSCOW (JTA) – A feared $1 million slash in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s budget for Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union would seriously impact non-Orthodox educational options, local leaders are saying. According to sources in Jerusalem and Moscow, the Jewish Agency will decide later this month whether to cut 40 percent of its annual $2.5 million in support for 45 Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union.While 30 of those schools are Orthodox and have other income sources, the 15 schools operated by World ORT – the only ones that provide a pluralistic Jewish education – will be severely affected. Some would have to close or become non-Jewish public schools, sources said.”If this happens, it will seriously affect the whole system of Jewish education” in the region, said Avi Ganon, World ORT’s representative in Russia, Belarus and Central Asia.Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Yankelowitz neither denied nor confirmed the budget cuts, but he told JTA that the issue will be discussed during the agency’s board meeting June 24-28 in Jerusalem.”Until this time no decisions are made,” Yankelowitz said by telephone from Jerusalem. The head of the largest Jewish educational network in the former Soviet Union told JTA he had heard “only rumors” about possible budget cuts.”We have not received any official update about such a cutback,” said David Mondshine of the Chabad-affiliated Or Avner foundation.But sources familiar with the situation said that budgetary changes are likely to be adopted at the Jerusalem board meeting, given the agency’s financial difficulties.At risk is funding for the Heftziba program, created in 2003 by the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Ministry of Education to support 45 Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union.The agency and ministry each provide half of Heftziba’s annual $5 million budget, with the money going to 15 schools in each of three large networks: ORT, Or Avner and Shma Israel, a loose grouping of schools funded by the Reichman Foundation in Canada. Or Avner and Shma Israel schools provide Orthodox education; ORT schools are pluralistic, and focus on technological and computer training. Heftziba funds pay the salaries of Israeli teachers in many of the schools, as well as provide school buses, meals and financial incentives for teachers.Education ministry officials told Jewish leaders in the region earlier this year that the ministry’s share of the funding would not change. But a $1 million cutback by the Jewish Agency could have immediate consequences. Some schools would find it extremely difficult to continue providing free services, such as transportation, or even Jewish studies classes, local officials said.Mondshine said that Heftziba funds only 15 of the 75 Or Avner Jewish day schools. While he considers that support “very important” practically and symbolically, he points out that it ” is not critical to the schools’ existence, but to the strengthening of Judaism and Hebrew studies.”It is the ORT schools that likely would suffer the most. While no Jewish school in the former Soviet Union charges tuition, the two Orthodox networks are believed to have better funding than the ORT schools.Ganon said that if the budget cuts are approved, ORT would have to withdraw its support from six of the 15 schools it operates in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The schools in Samara, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, Zaporozhye and Kishinev may be turned into regular public schools as early as September.The principal of the ORT-supported Public School No.42 in Samara, a city of 1.45 million in central Russia, said Heftziba allocations to her 480-student school have decreased by a third over the past four years.”This is the first year we don’t have a teacher from Israel,” Svetlana Kostareva told JTA.Previously the school supported one Israeli emissary each year who taught Hebrew or Jewish history.”We feel we are cut off from Israel,” Kostareva said. “I can’t even imagine what is going to happen if the budget is cut even more.”Yuri Kinkov, principal of the ORT Lyceum in Kiev, Ukraine, said his school also has struggled financially in the past few years. He finds it increasingly difficult to remain competitive.”No Jewish parent sends his kid to a Jewish school because it has classes on the history of the Jewish people,” Kinkov said. “They come here to get quality education. And quality education takes teachers who should be compensated accordingly.”If the budget cuts happen, Ganon said that “in a year there will be almost no pluralistic Jewish day schools left in the former Soviet Union.” Many Jewish parents in the region show little interest in the Orthodox Jewish education other day schools provide, he said.ORT “will be doing our best to raise funds” for its schools if the Jewish Agency cuts its budget, Ganon said, but “without the help of international Jewish organizations and local Jewish businessmen, in the next year or two there will be only five non-religious Jewish day schools left.”Ganon does not know what will happen to students enrolled in the endangered ORT schools. There are other Jewish day schools in those cities, but most are Or Avner schools that only accept children with Jewish mothers, according to Mondshine. ORT and the few other pluralistic schools in the region accept students who are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, meaning they have at least one Jewish grandparent.

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