Since the early 1990’s ORT has been the only provider of Jewish education to the secular Jewish community in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic States and now serves more than 7,500 students. But in the past decade, the budget for Heftsiba, the programme through which Israeli governments have supported this and other Jewish school networks in the region, has shrivelled by two-thirds.
“We receive funds from the Jewish Federations of North America and some from the Israeli Ministry of Education but if it wasn’t for the Fellowship’s support I believe we would lose at least 25 per cent of our children. It would be a disaster because they wouldn’t be able to get the Jewish education we provide and which, through them, re-connects families to their heritage,” said the Head of World ORT’s Representative Office for the CIS, Central Asia, Caucasian States and Baltic States, David Benish.
No-one knows when the budget crisis afflicting World ORT’s network of 17 Jewish schools in the region will end but Mr Benish is working to keep his and his colleagues’ eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The on-going crisis can affect teachers’ morale because of the uncertainty it creates. But I tell them that, despite the difficulties, we will continue. And the main thing keeping our spirits up is the help we’re receiving from our friends at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,” he said.
The ORT schools have earned a reputation for high educational standards and respect for what is, in some places, their unique provision of well-equipped scientific and technological subjects. But their Jewish ethos makes them attractive in other ways, too.
“There is racketeering now in secondary schools with older students extorting money from younger ones. But in the Jewish school children don’t know about these things. Nobody smokes. And the administration and teachers manage to impose strict discipline while maintaining good relationships with the students,” said Elena Berkovich, whose son, Nikita, is a 7th grade student at the ORT-affiliated Pri Etz Haim school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Nina Levin, who has two children at the school, adds: “In our Jewish school my Jewish boy isn’t an outcast, as he might be at another school. Intolerance towards Jews hasn’t been overcome yet in our country and children may be teased and hurt just because of their identity… I work full time but I don’t worry about my children – they spend most of the day at school where they are cared for as a family. The school has security guards and has a fence around it and cameras in all of the rooms. Such precautions are important because there is always an anti-Jewish element whenever there is political unrest.”
The IFCJ’s critically important role is its funding of school buses and hot lunches. It sounds mundane but without these two basic services many of the students would be compelled to finish their schooling in less hospitable surroundings.
With anti-Semitism an increasing concern in many part of the former Soviet Union the bus services are another reassurance for parents.
“We don’t worry about sending our children to school – the bus service gives us confidence that they’ll be alright,” said Natalia Alexandrovna, whose grandchildren attend the ORT Alef School in Zaporozhie, Ukraine.
But it’s also the tyranny of distance which the school buses are so good at countering.
Boris Epshtein, whose son, Ilya, attends the Dubnov Jewish School in Riga, Latvia, said: “We live far from the school like many of the other families. Thanks to the school bus, Ilya gets to school on time which is very important to us parents because it means we can also get to work on time. Also, the transport service means Ilya can attend a variety of after school study groups.”
Mr Epshtein said there were schools closer to home, “but we couldn’t leave our child with Shabbat and Jewish holidays as they’ve now become part of our family life”.
Alla Naybullin is a mother-of-three married to a construction worker in Kazan, Russia.
“We are striving to give our children a quality education and the ORT school helps us very much by providing free meals and transportation. It’s a great support because we live far from the school and my sight-impairment means I can’t leave our home unaccompanied.”
It seems almost too obvious to mention that children may learn better if they’re well fed, but it’s something which is increasingly backed up by scientific studies. Children at ORT schools have a long day: they learn the national curriculum but also extra, Jewish and technical subjects. That means eating well is particularly important if their energy levels are not to drop off.
For Nikita Berkovich at Pri Etz Haim, who suffers significant health issues, access to good food takes on an added importance.
“Nikita is allergic to fat and fried food,” says his mother. “He can’t eat in popular fast food places. But at our school he gets adequate nutrition. It’s kosher and always fresh and varied. And its quality is monitored by the school doctor and administration.”
In Samara, Russia, mother-of-five Anastasia Bezgina is deeply grateful for the meals her children receive at the ORT Gesher School.
“It’s very important for their health that they receive good quality, tasty and nutritious food,” she said. “The school provides a varied menu – hot meals and also fruit, juices, and also treats like chocolate. The free meals help me to manage the family budget which can be difficult because we live on my husband’s salary and that’s often not enough to make ends meet. Without the school meals I would have to give my children sandwiches every day which would not be very nutritious and would put a strain on our finances.”
Nina Levin’s son, Jonathan, knows that everything is being done to support his attendance at Pri Etz Haim and deeply appreciates it.
“Our school doesn’t only teach academic subject,” he said. “It also teaches kindness, compassion and family values. We get gifts for the holidays and sometimes clothes and medicines for Mom. In our neighbourhood people sometimes have problems getting to work or school. My sister and I look at them from the window of the school bus and we feel sorry for them, especially in winter. We’re lucky to have the bus: there is plenty of room and we talk and laugh. And I know my Mom feels calm about us. My dream is to study robotics and invent a robot helper. We are grateful to our school and to our dear sponsors for helping us in these difficult times.”