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As Jewish givers pull back in FSU, Christian group steps in

Galina Rybnikova, with camera at a Moscow Jewish center event on March 17, 2009, says she is optimistic about her future despite the challenges wrought by tough economic times. (Grant Slater)

Galina Rybnikova, with camera at a Moscow Jewish center event on March 17, 2009, says she is optimistic about her future despite the challenges wrought by tough economic times. (Grant Slater)

MOSCOW (JTA) — Claps and cheers rang through the cavernous foyer of the Moscow State University of Management as two dozen students in a program for Jewish community professionals stepped up to receive their diplomas.

The cheers filled the small room, but outside their echo faded in the school’s business wing — perhaps auguring the daunting challenges these newly minted MBAs face as they head out into a Russian Jewish community caught in the global economic crisis.

“Chances are you will have more clients needing help from your programs at exactly the time when you have less money to help them,” warned Carol Saivetz, a sponsor of the master’s in business administration program in which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee partnered with Moscow’s leading management school, with funds from the Fred and Rita Richman Family Foundation.

Starting last August, the financial crisis has permeated the organized Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, spreading at different rates in different countries. Ukraine has been the hardest hit in the region, with an inflating currency that has the country teetering on collapse.

In recent months, the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews has stepped in to temporarily prop up children’s welfare operations across the former Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine. But the funds will last only until the end of the academic year in June, warned the group’s president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

There is some frustration among local leaders that a Christian group from the United States is stepping up to fill the gap while longtime sources of Jewish funding have cut back in the region and new sources have been difficult to find, Rabbi Yakov Bleich, the chief Orthodox rabbi in Ukraine, told JTA.

The five or six major organizations that funnel money into the region have trimmed their budgets or shuttered altogether. Charitable giving by those on Forbes’ 2009 list of the world’s wealthiest people has dropped by two-thirds, the magazine reported recently. The list includes Russian Jewish mega-donors.

Tanya Krasiy, who coordinates welfare programs for the JDC in Kiev, said the lists of families seeking assistance has ballooned in recent months as government workers have gone without salaries and seniors have missed out on their pension payments for three consecutive months.

“We have many requests just for providing the basic needs," she said. "Needy children is our main problem.

More than 2,000 children have been added to the list of 7,000 at-risk families, according to Krasiy.

“This is all very new, and it’s really terrible," she said. "Now we have 9,000 requests for just providing food.”

The crisis extends to orphanages in Ukraine, where demand has increased but the funds have not risen to meet the demands, Bleich said.

The most basic necessities — children’s welfare and support for the elderly — are being kept afloat at all costs, but there has been a restructuring of priorities among other programs that do not directly relate to welfare or money from the Claims Conference, said Alik Nadan, director of the JDC’s Moscow office.

Until this month, Galina Rybnikova, one of the students who received her MBA last week in Moscow, ran a professional development program in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, under the auspices and funding of the JDC.

The program, the Institute for Social and Community Workers, was shuttered recently, and Rybnikova now works for a private organization. She also manages the Limmud educational conference program in Ukraine on the side.

Despite the challenges, Rybnikova says she is optimistic about her future because of the management skills she gained with her new degree, which was subsidized 80 percent by the JDC.

“I’m on my own now, but I still have these skills to build Jewish life through my company and the Limmud,” she said.

In Russia, the crisis is not as acute as Ukraine, but certain pillars of Jewish life here have been hit by losses of donors.

Hillel lost a significant portion of its funding for the former Soviet Union when the Chais Family Foundation shut its doors after losing everything in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Hillel has worked to cover the gap with one of the only funders to increase its allocations this year, the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

The group, set up by a prominent Russian banker, Mikhail Fridman, has taken a seat on Hillel’s board and is seeking organizational changes before it invests heavily in Hillel.

Genesis is focused on building Jewish identity, especially among young adults; it is not involved in Jewish welfare operations in the region.

In Moldova and Belarus, the financial crisis has not yet trickled down to two of the poorest countries in Europe. Their economies are largely isolated from the global recession because of strong state controls or lack of large financial institutions.

That may be changing soon, however, as the small Jewish communities there lose even the modest amount of support they had, according to Pavel Tayev, the general director of the Jewish Congress of Moldova.

“We have a crisis forming, especially among our businessmen with foreign interests,” Tayev said. “It’s not like it is in Russia, but they have less money to give and we rely on them. It’s not going to be deadly, but it’s close.”

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