American group comes to aid of schools in former Soviet Union

moscow  |  In what amounts to a bailout for Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union, a key U.S. aid group has thrown them a temporary lifeline.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has pledged

$7.1 million in social support to supplement three Russian school systems. The group also will continue a $3.1 million partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Most of the fellowship’s funds — more than $6 million — will go to the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities. None of the money will go to Jewish education itself, in accordance with the fellowship’s rules. Rather, the funds will go toward social support, such as school lunches and busing.

Russia’s Jewish educational networks have been badly hurt by the global financial crisis, as major funders have scaled back their support.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, facing a $45 million budget cut, eliminated its funding of Heftsiba, a program that supports all three Jewish school networks in Russia — Or Avner, Shma Israel and ORT.

Philanthropist Lev Leviev, the funder of the largest school network in the region, lost some 85 percent of his wealth last year. This forced a dramatic cut in funding for the Chabad-affiliated Or Avner network, which operates 75 schools in the former Soviet Union.

The nature of the losses has created something of a double whammy for schools: Their funding is drying up, but the financial crisis has forced them to direct more cash to support services such as busing and food programs.


Students attend class at an Or Avner school in Moscow. photo | jta/grant slater

The fellowship’s donation comes at a time when nearly all other Jewish charities are reeling from the financial crisis. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the fellowship’s president, said his organization was buoyed in January by donations in support of Israel’s operations in Gaza. The fellowship, which receives its funding from Christian donors in the United States, took in twice as much this month compared with last January.


But there are restraints on the funding. It cannot be used directly for Jewish education because of conflicts of interest with money that comes from Christian donors. Instead, the money must go to children’s welfare programs.

The bailout, however, is merely a stopgap measure, a one-time grant that only accounts for a fraction of the school systems’ funding.

The Heftsiba program had provided nearly $3 million in funding to Russia’s three school networks. The fellowship is stepping in to provide $1 million to support Heftsiba, and that will be matched by $1 million in support from the Israeli government. But it will only bring funding for the program  to around two-thirds of its previous level, Eckstein said.

The extent of the financial crunch Chabad faces in the region is not fully known. The group has laid off senior staff members, and there have been meetings about the flow of funds between countries in the former Soviet Union.

The head of the Or Avner school system, Rabbi David Mondshine, played down concerns about Chabad’s budget.

“All the rumors about the schools here have been going, but the schools are continuing,” Mondshine said.