Evangelicals’ rabbi wants to know why the Jews aren’t saving FSU Jewry

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises about $100 million per year in small donations from evangelical Christians and gives the money to Jewish and Zionist causes, is miffed that the Jewish people are not coming up with more money to help Jews in the former Soviet Union.

He is miffed that the government of Israel is seemingly Welsching on several million dollars that it pledged to help the Heftsiba school system in the FSU.

Heftsiba, which was started as a covert operation run out of the office of Israel’s prime minister during the 1960s as a way to sneak Zionist education, Hebrew education and Jewish religious supplies to Soviet Jews, became its own school system after the fall of communism. It was run out of the Israeli Education Ministry for nearly 20 years before being handed off to the Jewish Agency for Israel about two years ago, according to Eckstein.

Last year the 26-school Heftsiba system looked like it was going to be a casualty of the economic downturn, the Madoff scandal and the Jewish Agency facing an $80 million budget cut. But then in February Eckstein’s IFCJ stepped in with emergency funding. 

Eckstein said that he would match up to $5 million in funding over the course of this year to keep the schools afloat, so long as other Jewish donors matched the funds. The Israeli government pledged to pitch in $1 million. Based on that pledge, the fellowship cut a $1 million check to Heftsiba.

According to Eckstein, Israel has yet to pay up, even though it said it would do so immediately.

“The bottom line is that the government said it would take care of Heftsiba, but it hasn’t even sent the money it owes from six months ago, and yesterday I get a letter from the school in Kharkov, Ukraine, that they are closing their doors,” Eckstein told The Fundermentalist on Tuesday. “They never got the money from the government of Israel and have no reassurance they will be able to get funding in September, so there goes 125 Jewish kids in Harkov, who don’t have a Jewish future.”

Eckstein said that he has been pushing the government to come up with the money. But the responsibility for paying the $1 million is being passed from ministry to ministry, with no one wanting the money to come out of their own budget, Eckstein said.

He had a meeting with Knesset members on June 2 to press for the money. He was unable to get an answer, but was told that the Education Ministry will take over the Heftsiba system from the Jewish Agency next fall.

The Israeli government pledged to “give $1 million, and it hasn’t even done that yet, and they are going ahead and accepting commitments for next year before they have even honored their commitment from past six months,” Eckstein said, chiding the Israeli government. “Who is to believe them? I certainly don’t.”

The money to Heftsiba was part of an $12 million pledge that the fellowship made to save three Jewish school systems in the FSU, including $6 million to keep the Chabad school system running. The Chabad system was heavily financed by Lev Leviev, the diamond mogul who saw his stock plummet by 90 percent, losing him a half a billion dollars over the past year.

The fellowship also gave $1 million to the Shma Yisrael school system, which had been heavily financed by the Reichmann family of Canada.

While most charities are floundering, the fellowship is on pace to raise more money this year than it ever has. Last year the organization took in roughly $90 million; this year, Eckstein said, it is already 20 percent above pace. He project that the fellowship will end up raising between $110 million and $120 million in 2009.

But Eckstein wants to know why the Jewish community is not stepping up to offer more assistance to Jews in the former Soviet Union, after spending 20 years of helping to build a community there.

“The Jewish community can’t come up with $2 million for future of Jewish children?” he said.

Even taking into account the Madoff scam and the economic crisis, Eckstein said it was a "shonda" — or shame — "that world Jewry, can’t pay for the $2 million and it has to have Christians from California or from Florida pay.”

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