Heads of Schusterman foundation and World ORT say more is needed in FSU


The heads of two prominent Jewish organizational have stepped up on JTA’s Op-Ed to make High Holiday appeals to the Jewish community not to abandon Soviet Jewry in light of the recession.

The CEO and director general of World ORT, which runs a number of Jewish vocational schools in the former Soviet bloc, says that he has seen support for the Jewish infrastructure that the broader Jewish community built in the FSU dwindle to critically low levels in the months since the recession took hold:

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.

While Sandy Cardin, the president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, reflects on a recent trip that he took to Kiev. The Schustermans have invested millions of dollars with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to build up Hillel outposts on university campuses in the FSU, but he is too concerned that the rest of the world might forget about the region because of tough times:

Fifteen years ago, the Jews of the former Soviet Union were just awakening from 70 years of oppression. The Communist regime prohibited the practice of Judaism, and those synagogues that were neither destroyed nor allowed to fall into ruin were put to use by the state for non-religious purposes.

Other than the JDC and Chabad, very few Jewish groups had any meaningful representation and programs in the region, and the mix of apprehension and ignorance among the local Jewish population made working there a very difficult task.

Despite these obstacles, Charles (z"l) and Lynn Schusterman considered the lifting of the Iron Curtain a window of opportunity that they simply could not afford to miss. They also felt there could be significant lessons to be learned about assimilation and the power of the Jewish experience from a people returning to Judaism from a deep, dark, government-imposed slumber.

And so, in 1994, our foundation joined with Hillel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to open Hillel programs in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Our goals were to begin to plant the seeds of a vibrant Jewish community in the former Soviet Union and then, if we were successful, to discover what it is about Judaism that kept a yearning alive for so many. We hoped that answer would ultimately hold the key to Jewish renewal in the United States and elsewhere.

Today, what we and others sowed in the ’80s and ’90s have grown into fruit-bearing trees from which the local and global Jewish community will benefit for years to come. In addition to the 26 Hillels in the region, there are synagogues, Jewish community centers, chesedim (social service/welfare centers), kindergartens, day schools, camps, youth programs, academic groups, women groups and Taglit/Birthright Israel. Even local Jewish funders, including the Genesis Philanthropic Group, are supporting a variety of other projects in the region, including Hillel.

Of course, our community-building work in the FSU is far from over. Even in these difficult economic times, we must continue to make long-term investments in the region in addition to meeting individual needs of the elderly and infirm or risk watching our hard-earned gains of the past 20 years slip away. We cannot afford to take an ‘either-or” approach; an “and-both” is our only alternative, and we must find ways to muster the resolve and the resources to make that happen


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