ORT schools in Russia strained by financial turmoil

st. petersburg, russia | Students in uniform dart in and out of the nondescript door of School No. 550, sandwiched between one of this river city’s iconic canals and the edge of its seediest market.

The school seems to be perched on the edge of regal affluence, but it already has pitched headlong into the din of financial turmoil.

No. 550 is one of seven schools funded in part by Worldwide ORT that are facing an extreme budget crunch in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis. The schools, from Moldova to Siberia, are the only option for Russian students seeking a non-Orthodox Jewish education in the former Soviet Union.

Earlier this year, the Jewish Agency for Israel was forced to cut more than $1 million in funding for the ORT school system as part of an overall $45 million budget cut. That same financial environment has made it nearly impossible for the schools to shore up their finances locally, said Avi Ganon, the World ORT representative to the former Soviet Union.

There are three Jewish school networks in Russia. All three received funds from the Jewish Agency until they were cut at the beginning of this school year. The cuts totaled $2.9 million, said Alan Hoffman, the Jewish Agency’s director-general for Jewish Zionist education.

“I believe that all three networks are very susceptible to the budget cuts,” Hoffman said. “Unfortunately, although we made our decisions in July, the world financial crisis has brought about a second whammy.”

The largest network in Russia, Chabad-run Or Avner schools, is already reeling after its main donor, the Russian-speaking magnate Lev Leviev, dramatically reduced his funding in recent months.

But ORT is in a particularly precarious position. The seven schools in danger operate as joint partnerships be-tween the Russian government and ORT, which has some level of programming in 15 schools across the former Soviet Union for people of different ages and backgrounds.

ORT provides funding for the schools’ Jewish education, which goes solely to those children in the schools who are Jewish according to the Law of Return, which means they have at least

one Jewish grandparent. Depending on the school, that can range from 30 percent to 100 percent of the student body, Ganon said.

If their ORT funding falls off, the schools might be in danger of reverting to state-run schools with a six-day school week, which includes Saturdays, said Boris Notkin, the principal of No. 550 in St. Petersburg. The children currently do not attend school on Saturdays, taking instead a five-day school week with longer days.

ORT was founded in St. Petersburg in 1880 as a work initiative that sought to retrain Jews in agriculture and manufacturing. Today, the group has sharpened its focus on providing greater access to technology in Jewish schools.

The dual mission is evident at No. 550, where one floor is devoted to computer labs and another to chalkboards inscribed with the Hebrew alphabet.

In July, representatives from the Jewish Agency delivered a shock-and-awe message to the Israeli Cabinet: Soviet Jewry as it now exists could be extinct within one generation at current rates of assimilation. One solution centered on bolstering Jewish education in the diaspora to increase identification.

Shortly after this Cabinet meeting, however, with the school year on the horizon, the Jewish Agency sent memos to all its schools in the former Soviet Union saying they were forced to cut $1.2 million in Jewish education programs through ORT for the foreseeable future, Ganon said.

That sent schools across the former Soviet Union scrambling to replace a significant portion of ORT’s $7 million budget in the region.

Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency’s representative to the former Soviet Union, said that the budget cuts were unavoidable in the current financial atmosphere. They were part of the normal budget process and a recent round of cuts, he said.

World ORT draws its funding from federations in the United States and other international groups, but like all Jewish charities in the region, it is seeking to increase its donor base with local funders.

But the financial crisis has strained locals and squeezed donations from abroad.

Svetlana Kosareva, the principal of an ORT school in Samara, Russia, said that the lack of Heftsiba funding threatened the very existence of her school. Already Jewish children from the rural areas around Samara are not attending because the bus is no longer operating.

“With no buses and no Jewish studies, kids will drop out to attend a nearby regular school,” Kosareva said. “Teachers of Jewish studies, with all their enthusiasm, cannot work for free and will have to search for different jobs.”