Budgets slashed at Jewish schools in FSU
ODESSA, Ukraine — Across the former Soviet Union, Chabad’s outreach network is facing an acute financial crisis that has slashed budgets across the board and left the region’s largest network of Jewish schools scrambling to stay afloat.
Accounts of the depth of the financial crisis for Chabad in the former Soviet Union vary widely among rabbis and professionals working for the organization. But everyone agrees that the group’s main benefactor, Lev Leviev, racked by the world financial crisis, has been forced to dramatically scale back funding for the Or Avner network of schools, which he founded.
The repercussions of the setback run deep in a community that has relied greatly on Leviev’s largesse to proliferate its operations throughout the Soviet Union.
Leviev’s main holding company, Africa Israel, has lost some 85 percent of its value this year. Israeli news reports suggest a steady sell-off of other assets in recent months.
Forbes estimated Leviev’s wealth at the beginning of 2008 at $4.5 billion. Though local Chabad officials are mum, most estimates put Leviev’s yearly funding of the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities and the Or Avner Foundation at $60 million. The Or Avner school system was founded by Leviev in 1992 as a tribute to his father. It serves 13,000 people through its network of 75 day schools and 20 other programs.
Leviev’s woes come as the global financial crisis takes particular hold in the two largest countries of the former Soviet Union — Russia and Ukraine. The crisis has hit the region’s oligarchs the hardest and drastically reduced the pool of capital available for local charitable donations.
Share prices on the Russian stock exchange have fallen 75 percent since May, and the oligarchs have been the hardest hit so far. Their net worth has fallen from $300 billion in May to just over $70 billion today, according to an article in the leading Russian business daily Vedomosti.
The financial crisis has constricted all the usual pipelines through which Jewish money flows into the former Soviet Union to educate the young, feed the infirm and bolster communities.
The two other networks of schools in the region, the secular ORT system and the Orthodox Shma Yisrael, have suffered from cutbacks undertaken by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Shma Yisrael has lost $200,000 in funding and the ORT schools are struggling through a budget cut of $1.2 million in recent months, according to ORT officials.
Two of the largest local funders of Jewish causes in Ukraine, Igor Kolomoysky and Gennady Bogolubov, also have lost billions.