Rabbi Dov Begun, head of the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, calls the yeshiva’s Russian Program for Jewish Studies “a maternity ward” where Jews are born anew. An integral part of this program, though, has just been cancelled.
The 30-year-old program educates young Jews from Russia and the Ukraine for a year under the sponsorship of the government or Israel and its Masa Israel program for foreign students.
One of the directors of the program, Rabbi Eliahu Berezinsky, said, “The decision is discriminatory and not understandable. Doing away with a program of Jewish studies for Russian-speakers, who need such learning more than most other groups, is outrageous.”
Former Prisoner of Zion Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich – one of the original founders of the program – told The Jewish Press, “The Jews in Russia and the Ukraine are suffocating, not from corona, but from a lack of Jewish learning. They call out, ‘Save us! We need oxygen for our souls!’
“For three decades, the Russian-speaking program at Machon Meir has made menschen out of thousands of Jews. The majority remain in Israel and become patriots to the state, living Torah lives. Now Benjamin Netanyahu comes along with an executor’s axe and chops off a life-saving program.”
Asked what Netanyahu has to do with the canceled program, Rabbi Mendelevich said, “The letter canceling the program came from the Office of the Prime Minister. The Masa Israel project is conducted under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. Someone made the ugly decision to cancel the funding to bring Russian students who want to learn about their religious roots. It may not have been Netanyahu, but he’s the boss there.
“Unfortunately in Israel, much of the government policy is decided upon by the assistant directors and even office secretaries, and not by the ministers themselves. Many people in the country have a pastime of trying to undermine religious programming. That’s nothing new. But in a largely Likud government – in which two of the Likud ministers, Zev Elkin and Yuli Edelstein, wear kippahs and come from the former Soviet Union – I would expect them to make sure that anti-dati actions like this don’t occur.”
In response to an inquiry, a spokeswoman for Masa Israel explained to The Jewish Press that government budget cuts for its operations forced it to cut back on its programs. The Russian-speaking program at Machon Meir was not the only victim of the adjusted allotments.
“So why was a program in Judaism cancelled and not some academic course?” Rabbi Mendelevich counters. “They can’t cancel the Jewish studies program for American kids because America Jews donate the money that keeps Masa in business. And they can’t cancel the course in stand-up comedy because that’s a holy occupation.
“When I tried to investigate the matter, I was passed around to different offices and secretaries like a soccer ball. Finally, I was informed that the program was cancelled because it had fewer applicants than other more popular programs. Ribbono Shel Olam, is there any wonder why? The Soviet regime wiped out Judaism completely. Nu? What do you expect?
“Instead of helping whatever handful of Russian youth who want to learn about Judaism and instead of increasing funding a thousand-fold to spiritually rescue the Jews still in Russia, they close down one of the few opportunities completely.”