The largest system of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union appears to be in danger of collapse as its main benefactor, Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, makes major cutbacks in funding to the Or Avner Foundation network, the Jewish Week reports.
Leviev, who reportedly pumped some $20 million a year into the Or Avner system, is facing severe financial reverses to his international business empire due to the world economic crisis.
Well-placed sources in Israel told The Jewish Week Monday that Leviev’s funding has been “frozen” and that some Or Avner schools may have already closed. Or Avner officials deny this, saying only that Leviev has asked schools to cut their budgets.
Leviev, an Uzbekistan-born self-made magnate who made his fortune in diamonds and real estate, has seen the value of his Africa-Israel Group stock plummet 90 percent over the past 18 months on the Tel Aviv stock market.
Leviev’s money woes have also caused financial crises for several Or Avner schools in the U.S., including the Queens Gymnasia in Elmhurst. The school is populated largely with Bukharian Jewish students who have — until now — attended free, thanks to Leviev’s largesse.
According to Zalman Zvulunov, director of Or Avner in the U.S., parents at the Queens Gymnasium are being asked for the first time to pay a portion of their children’s tuition. Some teachers’ jobs are being eliminated, Zvulunov said, while others are being asked to work longer hours.
Founded in 1992 by Leviev and named in honor of his late father, the Or Avner Foundation is the educational wing of the Federation of Russian Jews. The federation is the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated umbrella body that serves as the central Jewish organization in Russia and across many of the other states of the FSU.
According to Rabbi David Mondshain, the Moscow-based director of operations for the Or Avner Foundation in the FSU, Or Avner includes 75 day schools across the FSU and 20 other educational programs, including kindergartens and higher educational programs serving a total of 8,500 students in day schools and 13,000 overall.
Mondshain declined to give a total amount for Or Avner’s annual budget except to say it is “a few million dollars a month.” But informed sources put the figure at about $60 million a year, of which about a third is said to come from Leviev.
The system also receives funding from the Jewish Agency — although much of that funding appears at risk as well due to ongoing financial difficulties at the Agency. Other sources of funding are Russian-Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, New York-based financier George Rohr and wealthy Jews throughout the FSU.
Rohr declined comment when asked whether he will continue funding Or Avner schools at the same level as he has done in the past.
Asked about reports in the Israeli media that Leviev recently informed Federation of Russian Jews and the Or Avner Foundation that he is cutting off all funding for Or Avner schools in the FSU, Federation spokesman Baruch Gorin told The Jewish Week: “I do not have this information. As far as I know, Mr. Leviev informed the Foundation that he will cut his funding by one-third, but will keep providing two-thirds of what he has given us until now. As a consequence, we have asked the local rabbis to find new local sources of funding to make up the difference.”
Asked about comments from a source in Israel with intimate knowledge of the situation in the FSU that several Or Avner schools have already shut their doors, Gorin said he is not aware that any schools have closed.
According to the source, “All the reports we are getting from our sources in the FSU is that the Leviev funds are indeed frozen. The reality is that Leviev is simply not liquid at this point, so he has no funds available to support his schools in the FSU.”
Leaders of the major Jewish organizations in the former Soviet Union are beginning discussions on how to save Or Avner and other schools in peril. But they acknowledge it will be difficult, especially in light of a fractious history with intense rivalries between the Chabad-dominated Federation and other non-Chabad bodies.
(LINK – The Jewish Week)