Heftziba: A Ray of Light Appears

There are small cracks in the wall, but they are growing.

Consider, the professional head of an influential American-based foundation speaks about the importance of reaching out to Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. Young adult programs, from multiple organizations, catering to the same audience are flourishing on multiple continents. Discussions on funding Jewish education in the countries of the FSU are discussed not only at the table of global Jewish organizations, but at the highest levels of the Government of Israel.

Perhaps, worldwide Jewry is beginning to internalize that the story of FSU Jewry is not over.

Some think that with the opening of borders those who have wanted to leave have left, and therefore why support those remaining? Yet, there are approximately 1.1 million Jews (as defined by Israel’s Law of Return) still remaining in the FSU. As Robert Singer, World ORT’s CEO told me, “the story of the future of Jews in the former Soviet Union is not yet written.”

However, the fact remains that most global Jewish organizations are downsizing their activities in the FSU.

In the young adult demographic, organizations including Hillel and LimmudFSU are filling some of the gap – and doing ground-breaking work – not only in reaching out with programming, but developing the next generation of leaders in the FSU.

But the foundation needs to be laid and then nurtured – instilling Jewish identity and education from childhood on. Here, the educational networks of World ORT, Or Avner and Shema Yisrael are playing the most valuable, and visible, role. With an anticipated enrollment of 9000 students this year, these organizations are continually challenged and struggling for survival.

The recent announcement by The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) of a new gift of $1.1 million, on top of $400,00 given earlier this year, will help sustain the schools for the coming year. The gift will be utilized for covering key social welfare costs, including hot meals, clothing and medicine for children from disadvantaged families as well as providing school busing, an item that has been a critical factor in declining enrollment at some schools.

In recent years, the Heftziba program has been on the verge of collapse, one of the early victims of a challenging economic environment. The IFCJ has often ‘stepped up to the plate’ with immediate aid. However, as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (IFCJ’s founder and president) has 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.”

Longer-term financial support remains a crucial problem. Several U.S. based Jewish organizations continue to posture on the subject. Here in Israel, The Jewish Agency is undergoing a shift in priorities, with many questions remaining to be answered. Yet Chair Natan Sharansky clearly recognizes the need saying, “Sustaining this school network is part of the Jewish Agency’s mission to build and strengthen Jewish identity.”

So too does the Prime Minister, who a few months back wrote Robert Singer, “… The Prime Minister’s Office views with great importance the Jewish Education System in the FSU and recognizes the significance of continuing its operation.

We have looked into this issue and have found that the Ministry of Education is currently making every effort to find a solution … I believe that the Ministry of Education will succeed in its efforts and that this issue will be resolved in the near future.”

Meanwhile, IFCJ has come up with cash. So has the Board of World ORT. But what about the future? The system was just weeks away from collapse.

Was this the wake-up call we needed?