FSU Jewish schools are tossed a temporary lifeline

Students attend class at an Or Avner school in Moscow in December 2008.  (Grant Slater)

Students attend class at an Or Avner school in Moscow in December 2008. (Grant Slater)

MOSCOW (JTA) — In what amounts to a bailout for Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union, a key U.S. aid group has thrown them a temporary lifeline.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has pledged $7.1 million in social support to supplement three Russian school systems. The group also will continue a $3.1 million partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union have seen a significant swath of their funding disappear over the last six months.

Most of the fellowship’s funds — more than $6 million — will go to the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities. None of the money will go to Jewish education itself, in accordance with the fellowship’s rules. Rather the funds will go toward social support, such as school lunches, busing and the like.

Russia’s Jewish educational networks have been badly hurt by the global financial crisis, as major funders have scaled back their support.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, facing a $45 million budget cut, eliminated its funding of Heftsiba, a program that supports all three Jewish school networks in Russia — Or Avner, the Orthodox Shma Israel schools and the secular ORT school system.

The collapse of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme has hit Jewish higher-education programs. And the funder of the largest school network in the region, Lev Leviev, lost some 85 percent of his wealth last year.

This forced a dramatic cut in funding for the Chabad-affiliated Or Avner network, which operates 75 schools in the former Soviet Union.

The nature of the losses has created something of a double whammy for schools: Their funding is drying up, but the financial crisis has forced them to direct more cash to support services such as  busing and food programs. Meanwhile, most of the community’s rescue funds are being earmarked for welfare, not education.

The fellowship’s donation comes at a time when nearly all other Jewish charities are reeling from the financial crisis. The fellowship also will be continuing its umbrella partnership with the JDC to provide services for at-risk children in the region.

Asher Ostrin, JDC’s director in the former Soviet Union, said the program would now take a more central role given the state of Jewish schools.

"If anything, there is an effort to put more money into our operation," Ostrin said. "The school system is facing very tough times right now."

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the fellowship’s president, said his organization was buoyed in January by donations in support of Israel’s operations in Gaza. The fellowship, which receives its funding from Christian donors in the United States, took in twice as much in donations this month compared with last January.

That opened up the opportunity to throw a lifeline to schools in Russia, Eckstein said.

But there are restraints on the funding. It cannot be used directly for Jewish education because of conflicts of interest with money that comes from Christian donors. Instead, the money must go to children’s welfare programs.

"There’s something very awkward and very strange and very wrong that Christians in America, ladies who are giving 10 percent of their meager Social Security, are giving sacrificially when you have a wealthy Jewish community even after the Madoff situation," Eckstein told JTA.

The bailout is merely a stopgap measure, a one-time grant that only accounts for a fraction of the school systems’ funding. Eckstein said his goal was to enable the school systems to continue operating until the end of the academic year. He said he’d be speaking shortly with leaders of the Orthodox community about needs for its their school system.

After that, it remains to be seen how the schools will fare next fall.

Over the course of the past year, representatives from schools across the former Soviet Union told JTA they had been forced to cut back on exactly the type of services that the grant can cover — busing, free lunches and other operating costs.

The Heftsiba program had provided nearly $3 million in funding to Russia’s three school networks. The fellowship is stepping in to provide $1 million to support Heftsiba, and that donation will be matched by $1 million in support from the Israeli government. But that will only bring funding for the program to slightly more than half its previous level, Eckstein said.

According to the Chabad-run federation’s Web site, Leviev approached Eckstein to ask for the infusion of cash to support Jewish schools here.

After Leviev “learned that the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and many other international charities would not be providing more than the amounts sufficient to ensure the continuance of Jewish community programs,” according to a news release, Leviev approached the fellowship “to request aid in salvaging this system.”

The extent of the financial crunch Chabad faces in the region is not fully known. The group already has laid off senior staff members, and there have been meetings about the flow of funds between countries in the former Soviet Union.

The head of the Or Avner school system, Rabbi David Mondshine, played down any concerns about Chabad’s operating budget. He also emphasized that the fellowship’s funds would be directed toward social programs for children.

"All the rumors about the schools here have been going, but the schools are continuing,” Mondshine said. “There have been budget cuts, of course."

Over the course of the past year, representatives from schools across the former Soviet Union told JTA they had been forced to cut back on exactly the type of services that the grant can cover – busing, free lunches and other operating costs.

The Jewish Agency’s Heftsiba program had provided nearly $3 million in funding to Russia’s three school networks. IFCJ is stepping in to provide $1 million to support Heftsiba, and that donation will be matched by $1 million in support from the Israeli government. But that will only bring funding for the program to slightly more than half its previous level, Eckstein said.

According to the Chabad-run federation’s Web site, Leviev approached Eckstein to ask for the infusion of cash to support Jewish schools here.

After Lev Leviev “learned that the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and many other international charities would not be providing more than the amounts sufficient to ensure the continuance of Jewish community programs,” a press release says, Leviev approached “IFCJ to request aid in salvaging this system.”

The extent of the financial crunch Chabad faces in the region is not fully known. The group already has laid off senior staff members, and there have been meetings about the flow of funds between countries in the former Soviet Union.

The head of the Or Avner school system, Rabbi David Mondshine, played down any concerns about Chabad’s operating budget. He also emphasized that IFCJ’s funds would be directed toward social programs for children.

"All the rumors about the schools here have been going, but the schools are continuing,” Mondshine said. “There have been budget cuts, of course."

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