For the first time in post-Soviet history, the Jewish Agency for Israel will help operate Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union.
Earlier this month, the Jewish Agency announced that it had reached an agreement with Israel’s Ministry of Education to work in most Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools in the region. The program will begin on Monday, Sept. 1.
The move comes amid deep budget cuts in the Israeli government, which has provided Jewish curricula and staff to a growing number of Jewish institutions in the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism.
More than half of the Jewish Agency’s money comes from the North American Jewish federation system.
According to a Jewish Agency news release, the new arrangement will affect 21,000 students studying in 223 schools — 180 Hebrew schools and 43 day schools in which 90 teacher emissaries from Israel are employed.
Until now, the agency’s educational work in the region focused only on informal education — dozens of ulpans, or Hebrew-language courses, for prospective immigrants to Israel, as well as youth and family clubs and summer camps.
Following the fall of communism in 1991, two Israeli agencies — the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister’s Liaison Office — divided the responsibility for establishing of the Jewish day and supplementary schools in various parts of the former Soviet Union.
The program the two agencies operated in most of the Jewish day schools across the FSU is known as Heftziba, the Hebrew acronym for Formal Jewish Zionist Education in the Former Soviet Union.
The budget for the Jewish Agency’s operations in the former Soviet Union has remained relatively stable over the last several years despite the fact that from this region, aliyah — the agency’s primary mandate — has experienced a dramatic drop of 30 percent to 40 percent annually compared with emigration to Israel during the late 1990s.
The situation forced Jewish Agency officials to seriously rethink the agency’s mission in the region and to step up its efforts in the educational sphere.
Some sources in Russia familiar with the situation say it resulted in the Jewish Agency’s longtime efforts to gain control over the Jewish day schools in the region.
Not so, said Yehuda Weinraub, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, who said the Ministry of Education initiated the talks that led to the agreement.
Officials with the Jewish Agency in Russia give the figure of the operational annual budget for the program they the agency will take part in at $5.6 million.
The Education Ministry will continue to pay the salaries of the 90 teaching emissaries employed in the Heftziba program at schools in the former Soviet Union. All other expenses, including the salaries of local employees, books, teacher training and professional development will be covered equally by the Jewish Agency and the Education Ministry.
“The Jewish Agency has very clear priorities in its educational policy, and we will be trying hard to put them into practice,” Dima Zicer, director of Beit Agnon, the Moscow-based JAFI Educational Center for Jewish and Israeli Culture. “We want to bring more Israeli Jewish culture to schools.”
Jewish Agency officials say the agency’s experience in the field of informal education in the region will help it cope successfully with the task of broadening Jewish identity among Jewish students and their families in the region.
Russian Jewish leaders and educators expressed cautious optimism about the new arrangements, saying they would welcome some serious changes in the Jewish and Israeli component in day schools.
“While the Jewish Agency has been denied access to Jewish schools for 12 years, I would expect this new arrangement to bring serious changes to our schools,” said Grigory Lipman, principal of Moscow Jewish Day School No. 1311 and co-chairman of the Association of Jewish School Principals of the Former Soviet Union.
He said his biggest concern was the lack of standardized curricula and textbooks on Jewish history, tradition and Hebrew — the primary subjects that are taught in most Russian schools by Israeli teachers.
Lipman said the Israeli Ministry of Education had not provided the schools with the required material, nor had it allowed the schools to develop their own books and methods.
“There are still more questions than answers about the new arrangements,” he said. “I hope the change will be for the better.”