With new leadership and a larger budget, Yael Foundation looks to boost Jewish education worldwide

Backed by a Ukraine-born, Cyprus-based donor, the organization plans to issue $21.8 million in grants in the coming year

A relatively new organization has entered the field of Jewish education, backed by a Ukrainian-born, Cyprus-based Jewish philanthropist, which plans to serve as a lifeline for small and overlooked Jewish communities.

Founded some three years ago by Uri and Yael Poliavich, the Yael Foundation in recent months has developed a more focused strategic plan, brought on new leadership and doubled its grant fund as it looks to play a more significant role in Jewish education around the world, making Jewish schools — both day schools and extracurricular programs — better, cheaper and more available.

In the coming year, the foundation plans to issue $21.8 million in grants, at three different tiers, to dozens of schools around the world, but mostly in small European communities, the organization’s newly hired CEO, Chaya Yosovich, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Last month, the foundation brought together dozens of school principals and community leaders from 31 countries, mostly of them from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, for its annual conference in Paphos, Cyprus, which featured speakers on a variety of education topics, as well as sessions on how to use the foundation as a resource and time for networking and general conversations.

“The conference is meant mostly to make connections and for networking between the school principals from all of these different places, many of which are relatively isolated,” Yosovich told eJP on the sidelines of the conference, which was held at a swanky seaside resort. “Here they can make connections, which gives them more tools as principals. It also gives them some recognition — we know that their work isn’t simple and isn’t easy, and there’s something that we can do for them.”

Uri Poliavich, who founded the online gambling company Soft2Bet, launched the Yael Foundation with the goal of making Jewish education accessible to everyone. “Our goal at the Yael Foundation is to make sure Jewish children and families worldwide have the opportunity to connect and to have meaningful Jewish experiences available, whether through schools, informal educational programs, summer camps and more,” Poliavich told eJP after the conference.

The foundation operates under the assumption that in many countries, Jewish schools and extracurricular programs are not sufficiently attractive, either because they are not as strong academically or because they are too expensive. By improving the school facilities, offering training programs for teachers and subsidizing tuition, the Yael Foundation looks to make these Jewish educational programs more appealing to parents.

“I grew up missing basic knowledge of Jewish life and tradition,” Poliavich said. “As an adult, I had more and more meaningful Jewish experiences and started to realize the vital role of education in fostering a sense of Jewish identity. It became clear to me that every Jewish child should have the opportunity to learn about our traditions, holidays, the Hebrew language and more. This is what motivates me.”

Poliavich explained that he decided to found his own organization instead of donating to an existing one out of his belief in a “hands-on approach to my philanthropy.”

“I see the schools, students and principals we support as part of our extended family. Prioritizing direct contact and engagement with the programs we fund is essential to me,” he said. “This personal connection drove me to establish my own foundation, and create a family-oriented culture within the Yael Foundation. Ultimately, we’re often the ones they rely on for guidance and support when needed, reflecting the true essence of family.”

Since its founding, the organization has made grants to 65 educational programs — kindergartens, after-school programs, day schools and Sunday schools — in some 30 countries. The foundation has also run an international camp program for the past two summers, bringing together kids from Jewish communities around the world, with plans to hold another this year.

In recent months, the foundation has brought on Yosovich as its new chief executive, replacing Eliezer Lesovoy, who is staying on with the organization as its director of education, and Naomi Kovitz as its new chief operations officer. 

Kovitz, who started just a few weeks before the conference, comes from the nonprofit field, most recently as the chief development and innovation officer at Ohel Sarah, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities. 

Yosovich, who is Haredi and a mother of nine, came to the Yael Foundation with significant experience in Diaspora Jewish education, having served as the CEO of the Shema Yisroel network of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union for over a decade. She also worked for two years in Israel’s Finance Ministry as an adviser on Diaspora affairs. But her connection to the field of Jewish education in the Diaspora is also personal. “It was very important to my parents,” she said. “We were emissaries in Moscow for five years. I was a youth group leader and camp organizer through the American organization Operation Open Curtain.”

Five months ago, Poliavich approached her about joining the Yael Foundation. “He said, ‘We’re a small foundation that’s looking to go up to the next level,’” she recalled.

Yosovich’s first day at the Yael Foundation was on Oct. 8. “That was a challenging week to start a new job,” she said, “but on the other hand, it demonstrated the great significance that this work has.”

According to Yosovich, the foundation initially took a perhaps too broad approach to grantmaking, supporting many small initiatives all around the world. Now, the foundation, which is primarily based in Israel and Cyprus, is looking to refocus and concentrate the bulk of its attention on Europe, though it will retain some of its support for programs elsewhere.

“We want to get everywhere in the world, but at the moment we can’t really get to every Jew around the world. We need some focus to start from, so we decided to start with Europe,” Yosovich said.

She explained that Europe is both close to Israel geographically and is somewhat more familiar territory. “So we’ve decided to first focus on locations in Europe with huge potential, where there are lots of Jews who don’t get to Jewish communal institutions. We want to help them get to a place where people want to send children [to study there],” she said.

In addition to limiting the focus of its operations primarily to Europe, Yosovich said the foundation is also establishing three tiers of grants: three or four “mega projects,” which will represent some 50% of the foundation’s annual grantmaking; a slightly larger number of “medium” grants, which will make up roughly 30% of its annual grantmaking; and the remainder will go toward “ongoing support” for institutions.

In the “mega projects,” the foundation will effectively build a new Jewish school from the ground up or substantially renovate an existing one.

Two of the recipients have already been chosen — one school in Cyprus and one in Riga, Latvia — with a third and possible fourth still being considered, Yosovich said.

The school in Riga, which is run by the local Chabad rabbi, already exists but requires substantial funding for renovations as the building is a preserved historical structure. There is another Jewish school in the city, but that is a state-run school, which limits the amount of religious education that it can offer, Larisa Ivolgina, who works at the school, told eJP.

Ivolgina said that the hope is that by renovating the building and improving its computer science program, the Chabad school can attract more students. It currently has 18.

At the intermediate grant level, the foundation will work to provide professional development programs for teachers and administrators of schools. The lowest level will be for “ongoing support,” general funding to bolster the institutions.

In the past, the foundation primarily made grants for these “ongoing support” purposes, but Yosovich said the organization no longer felt this was effective.

“A school would say, ‘We need this much to keep a teacher on staff’ or ‘We need this much for kosher food.’ This would be very hard for us to measure the impact that we were having. How could we know that this was doing what we wanted to happen: were more students coming, was there greater interest,” she said. “We need to get more into the quality and not just the quantity.”

For now, the foundation, which is still new on the scene and building its reputation, is operating primarily on one-year grants, not long-term commitments.

“[The foundation] is something new,” Yosovich acknowledged. “We hope to be here for the long-term, we hope to get bigger and bigger, but in general what we are doing is signing a one-year contract and transferring the funds,” she said, noting that in some cases the grant can tentatively be for three years. 

Tthe foundation does not have an official relationship with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, but it does have close ties with it and with certain members of it, notably Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine, whom Poliavich has credited with getting him more involved in Jewish philanthropy through Azman’s Anatevka project. Azman’s son, Rabbi Shmuel Azman, has also served as chairman of the foundation’s board.

Many of the recipients of the foundation’s grants are from the Chabad movement — including at least two of its “mega projects” — as were most of the attendees of last month’s conference. 

“Personally, I’ve had meaningful encounters in Ukraine, particularly with the Azman family, and deeply value their dedication to the Jewish community,” Poliavich said. 

Yet he stressed that the foundation is pluralistic and often supports Chabad programs in small communities because they are some of the only ones available.

“The Yael Foundation maintains an inclusive approach to supporting Jewish educational initiatives globally, especially in areas where such opportunities are limited,” he told eJP.  “While we don’t have a formal relationship with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, we often find a Chabad shaliach leading programs in remote locations.”

The Yael Foundation provided eJewishPhilanthropy with transportation and accommodation for its conference.