ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (JTA) — Students in uniform dart in and out of the nondescript door of School No. 550, sandwiched between one of this river city’s iconic canals and the edge of its seediest market.
The school seems to be perched on the edge of regal affluence, but it already has pitched headlong into the din of financial turmoil.
No. 550 is one of seven schools funded in part by Worldwide ORT that are facing an extreme budget crunch in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis. The schools, from Moldova to Siberia, are the only option for Russian students seeking a non-Orthodox Jewish education in the former Soviet Union.
Earlier this year, the Jewish Agency for Israel was forced to cut more than $1 million in funding for the ORT school system as part of an overall $45 million budget cut. That same financial environment has made it nearly impossible for the schools to shore up their finances locally, said Avi Ganon, the World ORT representative to the former Soviet Union.
There are three Jewish school networks in Russia. All three received funds from the Jewish Agency until they were cut at the beginning of this school year. The cuts totaled $2.9 million, said Alan Hoffman, the Jewish Agency’s director-general for Jewish Zionist education.
"I believe that all three networks are very succeptible to the budget cuts," Hoffman told JTA. "Unfortunately, although we made our decisions in July, the world fiancial crisis has brought about a second whammy."
The collective funding apparatus for the Diaspora schools is known as Heftsiba. The $2.9 million is parsed out evenly among the three school networks. The Jewish Agency is conducting a push to seek new donors for Heftsiba, Hoffman said. At the same time, emergency funding has pulled tens of thousands of dollars at a time from groups like the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews.
The largest network in Russia, Chabad-run Or Avner schools, is already reeling after its main donor, the Russian-speaking magnate Lev Leviev, dramatically reduced his funding in recent months.
A third network run by the traditional Orthodox community, Shma Israel, is the smallest and also relied on funds from the Jewish Agency to subsidize its schools.
But ORT is in a particularly precarious position. The seven schools in danger operate as joint partnerships between the Russian government and ORT, which has some level of programming in 15 schools across the former Soviet Union for people of different ages and backgrounds.
ORT provides funding for Jewish education, which goes solely to those children in the schools who are Jewish according to the Law of Return, which means they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Depending on the school, that can range from 30 percent to 100 percent of the student body, Ganon said. In big cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow, where Jewish students are a vast majority of the student body, many parents have chosen to send their children to the ORT schools for the daily portion of Jewish education in a pluralistic environment. In smaller cities, parents often prefer ORT’s combination of technology and Jewish education to other public schools.
If their ORT funding falls off, the schools may be in danger of reverting to only state-run schools with a six-day school week that includes Saturdays, said Boris Notkin, the principal of No. 550 in St. Petersburg. The children currently do not attend school on Saturdays, taking instead a five-day school week with longer days.
ORT was founded here in St. Petersburg in 1880 as a work initiative that sought to retrain Jews in agriculture and manufacturing. Today, the group has sharpened its focus on providing greater access to technology in Jewish schools.
The dual mission is evident at No. 550, where one floor is devoted to computer labs and another to chalkboards enscribed with the Hebrew alphabet.
In July, representatives from the Jewish Agency delivered a shock-and-awe message to the Israeli Cabinet: Soviet Jewry as it now exists could be extinct within one generation at current rates of assimilation. The main thrust of its solution was to encourage more immigration to Israel with enhanced benefits, but another solution centered on bolstering Jewish education in the Diaspora to increase identification.
But shortly after this Cabinet meeting, with the school year on the horizon, the Jewish Agency sent memos to all its schools in the former Soviet Union saying they were forced to cut $1.2 million in Jewish education programs through ORT for the foreseeable future, Ganon said.
That sent schools across the former Soviet Union scrambling to replace a significant portion of ORT’s $7 million budget in the region.
"This is peanuts" in comparison to the Jewish Agency’s budget, but "it makes a big difference," said World ORT CEO Robert Singer.
Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency’s representative to the former Soviet Union, said that the budget cuts were unavoidable in the current financial atmosphere. They were part of the normal budget process and a recent round of cuts, he told JTA.
These state-financed schools rely on ORT to subsidize teacher salaries for Jewish education or provide miscellaneous services such as busing in cities where the school is a further distance for students.
In St. Petersburg, Notkin said all his Hebrew teachers were forced to retire because they had not been paid salaries. The teachers were replaced but only for high school students. Junior high students have been left without Hebrew instruction.
Svetlana Kosareva, the principal of an ORT school in Samara, Russia, said that the lack of Heftsiba funding threatened the very existence of her school. Already, Jewish children from the rural areas around Samara are not attending because the bus is no longer operating.
"With no buses and no Jewish studies, kids will drop out to attend a nearby regular school," Kosareva said. "Teachers of Jewish studies with all their enthusiasm cannot work for free and will have to search for different jobs."
The ORT school in Kishinev, Moldova, has been forced to adjust on the fly to the budgetary changes, which came as a surprise to its principal, Svetlana Klimina.
She said her school had cut back on its buses and on the hours of Hebrew available to students.
World ORT pulls its funding from federations in the United States and other international groups, but like all Jewish charities in the region, it is seeking to increase its donor base with local funders.
Local funding is somewhat of a heritage for ORT. The St. Petersburg school proudly displays a ledger from its earliest days listing a contribution of ORT’s founder Horace de Gunzburg of 25,000 rubles alongside the penny donations of other locals.
But the financial crisis has strained locals and squeezed donations from abroad.
"We understand that Israel has its own problems," Klimina said. "But it was a destabilizing factor."