Dispute Threatens Israel Support for Jewish Studies in Former Soviet Union

Finance and education ministries in disagreement over state support for program to promote aliyah among students.

A dispute between the finance and education ministries over state support for a program of Jewish and Zionism studies in the former Soviet Union is threatening to close the program. The Heftziba program teaches about 10,000 students in 45 schools.

At the moment, the program's sole remaining funding comes from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein's International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Half a year ago, then cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel said the state would contribute NIS 3.5 million to the project, but no funds have been received yet. Heftziba was launched 20 years ago to develop a Jewish identity and promote aliyah among students.

In recent years, the Jewish Agency and Education Ministry operated the program, but due to budgetary problems the Jewish Agency stopped its support. In January, the Prime Minister's Office asked the IFCJ to urgently take over the Jewish Agency's role. In a January meeting, Yehezkel said the IFCJ's help was a lifesaver and the state would commit to NIS 3.5 million along with the same amount from the IFCJ, the minutes of the meeting obtained by Haaretz reveal.

"Heftziba would not be allowed to close," Yehezkel said, "and the state would not allow a concrete threat to the education system in the former Soviet Union."

Eckstein said the IFCJ was willing to put up $2.5 million immediately to save Jewish education there, but the state only committed itself to $1 million - "and even that small sum didn't reach the schools," said Eckstein. "We are going to lose this generation of students."

An Education Ministry source said that due to the treasury's handling of the matter, the state did not keep its commitments.

The Finance Ministry said it had budgeted the NIS 3.5 million on January 20, 2009, as agreed with the IFCJ.

The Education Ministry said the additional budget is in the approval process in the accountant general's office in the treasury.

The Prime Minister's Office referred the issue to the Information and Diaspora Ministry, but that ministry said it was not at all involved in the matter.