For Jewish Education in the FSU, Past Work at Risk

As summer was drawing to a close, 26 principals from the three Jewish education networks in the Former Soviet Union – Ohr Avner, Shema Yisrael and ORT – gathered in Jerusalem for an eight-day skill building and learning program.

The program, designed and implemented by the Melton Center for Jewish Education at Hebrew University in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Public Affairs and the Diaspora, brought together the heads of 11 Orthodox schools belonging to the Shema Yisrael and Ohr Avner networks along with 15 heads of ORT schools.

“This represents the first time in many years that the State of Israel has recognized the importance of Jewish schools in the FSU,” said Avi Ganon, World ORT Representative in Russia. “The principals are the right people to create an awareness and understanding of the State of Israel among their respective communities. By increasing their knowledge of Jewish cultural and historical subjects they develop a greater understanding of Israel’s role in contemporary Jewish life.”

The program comprises three stages – the initial seminar that has been successfully completed, a distance learning component, and a 12-day seminar back in Jerusalem in December.

The Director of the Melton Center, Arie Haskin, said it was challenging organizing the seminar for a group which included such a wide range of religious outlooks.

“Some of the principals of the Ohr Avner and Shema Yisrael schools are rabbis but some of the managers of these networks’ schools know nothing about Judaism because they leave that to their school’s rabbi,” Mr Haskin said. “I told them that the managers need to know about Judaism because they have to know how to give it a place in the school.”

Lectures were adapted to cater to religious sensitivities, he said.

“Even the rabbis taking part said they found it very interesting because they knew what was being taught but from a different angle,” Mr Haskin added.

He said the program was an opportunity for the networks, which have enjoyed cooperative relations at a senior level for many years, to form closer relationships at a grass roots level.

Despite their differences, all three networks share the common goal of providing their students with a Jewish identity.

“The common ground is much larger than the things which divide them,” he said. “This has been another contribution to Jewish unity in a region which has a long history of division – communism divided people very quickly.”

With the new school year just weeks away, the program’s timing was auspicious. For on the one hand, while Israel’s government is taking an active part in developing in-service training programs for teachers and principals, the financial needs of all the schools continue to provide significant challenges.

During their visit, I had the opportunity to sit with principals representing both Ohr Avner and ORT, and the financial problems I learned about on a late-spring visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg continue to plague the system. The difficulties are the same for all three networks – they just do not have ample financial resources to meet current needs. Cutbacks over the past few years have forced the elimination of Jewish studies teachers along with the elimination of transportation and hot meals in most schools. Despite promises made by the Israeli government, there is no money available for Israeli teachers for the current school year. Both the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Jewish Federations of North America have reduced allocations. It is unlikely either organization will step-up with new monies in the near future. A recent gift by the The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) helps – but this is not a solution.

Simply put, the financial shortfall puts the work of the past decade in jeopardy.

But, the problem goes deeper than just available monies for Jewish subjects. Many of the schools have developed reputations for providing the highest quality education in their respective cities – allowing the schools to attract the top teachers, and the best students. The cash shortages put pressure on the schools to cut costs. One result, a reduction in the work conditions of teachers making it more difficult to retain top teachers in a competitive job market.

This is a particular problem for schools in ORT’s network with their emphasis on technology. In several cities, ORT schools have achieved special status from their respective governments to become experimental laboratories for both new techniques and technologies.

Like schools all over the world, parents are interested in high-quality education. If the top teachers leave, the top students will not be far behind.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (IFCJ’s founder and president) recently said, “the costs of Jewish education and welfare of the children – who represent the future of Jewish peoplehood in the FSU – should be borne by the world Jewish community.”

We need to listen, absorb this message and act.

image: principals at the educational seminar in Jerusalem

World ORT contributed to this article.