Op-Ed: Step up to help imperiled FSU Jewish community

LONDON (JTA) — More than 40 years ago, the late Rabbi Israel Miller attended services at Moscow’s Central Synagogue. Later he wrote in The New York Times, “There still echoes in my ears the whispered plea, ‘Do not forget us.’ ”

That whisper grew into the roar of the Soviet Jewry movement, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West to demand freedom for their co-religionists suffering under the heel of communism.

It is a bitter irony that the communities that went on to reap the fruits of those idealistic days are now in danger of fading away, their cries for help drowned out by the cacophony of financial crisis.

Having survived decades of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and the bloody horrors of the German invasion, the Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union are in danger. We cannot find the $300 it would take to pay for food, transport, security and teachers’ salary supplements for each of the 11,000 students attending the ORT, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael schools in the region.

For nearly 20 years, Israel’s Education Ministry and U.S. Jewry have nurtured the astonishing renaissance of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union through a vehicle called Heftsiba, which funds the three Jewish school systems. Now, after years of budget cuts culminating in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s withdrawal of funding for Heftsiba, the wheels are coming off and with them the hopes of reaching our goal of a vibrant Jewish society in the former Soviet Union.

Food, transport, security and wages hardly constitute the exciting, cutting-edge technology for which ORT schools are renowned. But these issues are critical to the very existence of the 44 schools supported by Heftsiba and affiliated with the ORT, Shema Yisrael and Or Avner networks.

High-quality curricula mean long school days. That necessitates nutritious hot meals for students, many of whom come from disadvantaged homes. Many students need subsidized bus service so they can afford to travel the long distance required to reach their Jewish schools. And, sadly, security guards are more important now than they have been in recent years.

Furthermore, in a region where the cost of living is high but where teachers often are paid as little as $250 per month, the capacity to boost salaries is vital to attract and retain good staff. Parents want the best possible education for their children and the Jewish component is not always a priority. In order to attract them to our schools, we need to be able to compete with the many excellent non-Jewish schools in the cities where we operate.

Heftsiba’s demise has seen teachers forced to take pay freezes or cuts and others laid off; meal and transport subsidies canceled; extracurricular activities curtailed; no Israeli teachers of Hebrew and Jewish studies; and schools distracted from delivering education by the pressure of seeking new sources of income.

The resulting drop in enrollment is not only a loss to the schools but a personal and Jewish communal tragedy: Children at the precipice of assimilation are losing their link to Jewish education.

This is a far cry from the years following the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, when the creation of our Jewish school networks went hand in hand with an astonishing revival of Jewish identity and affiliation.

“Nowhere in the world have we ever seen a Jewish community of this size reviving from essentially nothing,” Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said at the time.

Without Jewish education, that revival will be cut short. Thanks to our schools, Jewish heritage has regained pride of place in tens of thousands of homes.

A generation ago, young Jews in the Soviet Union were able to tap into the Jewish knowledge of grandparents who had grown up before state-imposed atheism closed down synagogues, choked off the supply of rabbis and prayer books, restricted access to kosher food and nurtured the promulgation of age-old stereotyping and slander as part of mainstream political discourse.

Now it is the children who have been teaching their parents and grandparents.

What has been painstakingly built up over the past 20 years is nothing short of miraculous; now it could be only weeks away from ruin. Thanks to emergency funds from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the situation is not yet past the point of no return. But there is no Jewish organization willing or capable of assuming responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children and their future in the former Soviet Union.

The Jewish Agency’s new chairman, Natan Sharansky, has done a tremendous job in securing new funds from local businesspeople. But there are no indications yet that any of the $6 million pledged by the Genesis Philanthropy Group will be used to fill the hole left by Heftsiba’s demise.

The Israeli government accepts the importance of the Jewish school networks in the former Soviet Union and recognizes the need to support them. But in these tough times, support needs to be broad-based.

The task of saving our schools ultimately is up to the Jewish people as a whole. The Jewish federations of North America need to step up.

The fall of communism 20 years ago presented world Jewry with the unprecedented opportunity “to reclaim the Jews for the Jewish people,” as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s regional director, Asher Ostrin, said at the time.

World ORT, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael have been doing just that, each in its distinctive way. But without financial support from American Jewry we will lose this opportunity.

(Robert Singer is the director general and CEO of World ORT.)

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