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Across the Former Soviet Union As Overseas Funding is Cut, Future of Moscow Jcc Uncertain

March 4, 2003
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Pavel Gamburg spends most of his weekends at a Moscow JCC attending classes in arts, computers, Jewish tradition and Hebrew.

“I like the quality of education he receives here,” says Lev Gamburg, Pavel’s father. “I can’t think of any other place in Moscow where we could find so many exciting activities set in such a friendly atmosphere.”

In addition to a variety of classes and activities for children, the Taganka JCC — also known locally as the New Jewish Community House — holds exhibitions and concerts and conducts Jewish holiday celebrations for families. It is one of several JCCs in Moscow.

The center, which opened in March 2001, also runs a program for children with special needs, which JCC officials say is unique among Jewish organizations in Moscow.

But the center’s operation is in jeopardy: Its main funder, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has said it will no longer provide $150,000 to pay the center’s annual rent.

Jewish life across the former Soviet Union has enjoyed a renaissance of cultural, educational and religious life over the past decade. But the uncertain future of the Taganka JCC raises the question of who will pay to ensure that the renaissance continues.

The JDC’s decision comes as the organization is facing some tough questions. Contributions from the North American federation system, which helps fund the JDC, haven’t been able to meet the growing needs of Jews in the areas that the JDC services.

JDC officials say new challenges for Jews worldwide — particularly in Argentina and Israel — have added to an already critical budgetary situation for some JDC projects in the former Soviet Union.

“JDC’s budget overseas will be cut and is being cut,” says Ralph Goldman, the organization’s honorary executive vice president, who was instrumental in bringing the JDC back to the region during the era of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In addition, the move is part of a broader JDC goal to turn over funding for some Russian operations to the Russian Jewish community itself.

“We believe a community like Moscow is able to gradually take responsibility for what is going on here,” says Shmuel Kessler, JDC’s Moscow director.

Jewish community centers have been a centerpiece of the JDC’s work in the region. But Kessler says local organizations should prepare themselves for a situation where the JDC will no longer be able to support all the projects it has started.

“We may be the leading or the only sponsor with some of the projects, but we will not stay in that capacity indefinitely,” he says.

Kessler says the local community already has raised some of the money needed to keep the center operating.

But the Taganka center’s director, Irina Scherban, says that the center may have to close as early as next month unless more money is raised soon.

Scherban said she found a local sponsor to pay the center’s rent for one month, but that was “the maximum she could get,” especially on short notice.

The Taganka JCC was established with funds from a special three-year grant the JDC received from the UJA- Federation of New York.

The Moscow office of the JDC informed Taganka JCC officials in April 2002 that the grant had been discontinued, but the JDC continued to cover the center’s budget throughout 2002.

Scherban, who also is president of the Association of JCCs of the Former Soviet Union, agrees that the local community should be taking a proactive role in shaping its present and future. Yet she says it’s nearly impossible to raise money for JDC-initiated projects.

“Quite often, when I talk to a potential local sponsor, what I hear in response is, ‘Why would I donate my money’ ” to the JDC, she says.

The Russian Jewish Congress, arguably the local group most successful at raising funds, has indicated that it can’t support the Taganka JCC.

In fact, some leaders argue that, on its own, the Jewish community won’t be able to keep afloat all the projects it currently offers with overseas help.

“There is no lack of various organizations and projects that were started with foreign money,” one Jewish activist says. “What is lacking here are conscientious efforts by local leaders to start owning these projects.”

Other changes also may be in the offing: For example, the Taganka JCC may consider finding a cheaper and smaller space in a less prestigious area of Moscow to keep its programs going. In addition, while most Jewish activities and services in the former Soviet Union have been free of charge, that may change.

Boris Rubinstein, director of the Nikitskaya JCC, another JDC-supported center in Moscow and a flagship project for the entire JCC network in Russia, says his facility operates on a grant that will expire in two years.

The Nikitskaya JCC recently started charging fees for some of its projects. But such fees are unlikely to provide more than 5 percent of the center’s budget — and they may make the center too expensive for some.

“I’m not sure I will be able to afford paying for my son’s two different classes he attends here,” says Anna, a single mother whose 7-year-old son goes to the Nikitskaya JCC four times a week.

In the meantime, Jewish leaders concerned by the possible closure of the Taganka JCC are hoping to get the decision on its funding reversed.

A group of prominent Jewish officials last month sent a letter to JDC officials in New York asking them to find additional funding for the Taganka JCC. A group of JCC parents sent a similar letter to the JDC office in Moscow.

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