Sharansky on Funding in the FSU

When it comes to funding projects in the countries of the FSU, the only place where agreement exists is that there is less money available today than two years ago. The current problem has roots in the weakening value of the U.S. dollar  – and the resulting decline of purchasing power of both the Israeli shekel and the Russian ruble (among other currencies). This effects hundreds, if not thousands of initiatives on a daily basis as income is mostly in dollars and expenses in local currency. Add to this the cut-backs in funding to many organizations, including the Jewish Agency and the Joint (JDC) from the Jewish Federations system, and you now have the urgent need to restructure priorities.

Of course, the economic realities of the past two years are in addition to the long-running funding discussions around the Jewish world on providing assistance to those who leave their home countries for greener pastures as opposed to those who choose not to.

In the FSU, the Jewish Agency (JAFI) has cut many programs to the bone and eliminated others. Summer camps and [Hebrew] ulpanim, both long-time and popular initiatives developed by JAFI, were two of the more highly visible programs scaled back in 2008*. So coupled with my recent visit to Russia and the Ukraine, this was a natural to add into my discussion Sunday with Natan Sharansky, JAFI’s chair of the Executive.

Regarding the above two programs, the good news, according to Sharansky, is that support for both programs appears to have bottomed out and progress is being made to reinvigorate them. JAFI is “in process of bringing back [Hebrew] ulpanim and 2010 will see “more students participating in summer camp than last summer.” Additionally, just as in North America, camp fever has apparently caught on with new money available for summer camps. In fact under JAFI’s auspices, beginning this summer, there will now be a summer camp in Israel for Russian speaking youth!

Today, the Jewish Agency has taken the lead in negotiating with various entities – including both the Claims Conference and the Government of Israel – for more support of the various programs, including formal education. Telling me that “there is more understanding today of the importance of funding”, Sharansky also made clear the time is past for local communities to support these initiatives and indicated that Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Russian Jewish Congress are two that have already provided support for programs.

This model of working in partnership with local communities has also proved valuable to Limmud FSU, who has successfully partnered in both the Ukraine and Russia with local donors and local communal organizations. In fact, Sharansky highlighted the success of Limmud FSU, adding enthusiastically they operate under “our roof and on our platform”.

Strategic partnerships and more formalized relationships among organizations has become even more of a necessity for most as a result of the current funding environment. JAFI not only recognizes this, but the proposed new strategic plan contains an addition, “commitment to work in partnership with other organizations, funders and governments as a modus operandi” for the organizations’ work.

We encourage you to stay tuned – Jewish world funding to the FSU is just one of the many ongoing financial conversations taking place around many Board tables, and in government ministries, during 2010.

*Funding for formal school programs is an additional area where cut-backs have imperiled services. We will be addressing this topic in separate postings.