JAFI bails on education — now who’s gonna foot the bill?

The Jewish Agency just cut their share of funding to the Student Authority, which allocates higher education scholarships for olim, as a part of the immigrant absorption basket. It may not seem like much when considering the size of a major organizational or government budget, but 16,000,000 NIS is enough to put a lot of students outside of the scope of these scholarships, and is certainly enough to cause a crisis in funding for the Student Authority. This money, was the Jewish Agency’s portion of the 70,000,000 NIS Student Authority budget for olim higher education rights, including scholarships and ulpans.

Along with this, the other contributor to the Student Authority, the Ministry of Absorption, has faced heavy budget cuts itself, and may not be able to keep up its share of the aid to olim students.

It is no secret that the Jewish Agency is facing dire financial crisis, and has been for the recent past. Two years ago, the Agency cut back its funding to the Student Authority from 50% of the budget (35,000,000 NIS), to 25% (16,000,000 NIS). The Jewish Agency struggles to maintain relevancy in a modern Israel and Jewish World. It has saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews by helping them immigrate to Israel, whether publicly or clandestinely, since well before Israel gained independence in 1948.

There is no doubt that the Jewish Agency for Israel is an organizational hero, in every sense of the word. They are such heroes, in fact, that much (though by far, not all) of their work is done, as explained above. Now the Agency is facing a new crisis, the need to maintain relevancy in order to continue to survive. Hence their move towards promoting Jewish Peoplehood, and their lowering of emphasis on Aliya. These days, the threat doesn’t seem so existential for Jews in democratic states, and major funders do not want the Jewish Agency to staunchly pursue Aliya in their communities; so much so, that some JAFI Shaliachs in the US, do not promote Aliya publically, for fear of causing a rift between that specific community and the Jewish Agency/ Israel.

The essential point of the above is to make it clear that as the Jewish Agency becomes less relevant in the eyes of its funders, and took hits in funding due to the recent and ongoing global recession, the Jewish Agency simply does not have the funds to continue to cover programs that may not be necessary or relevant to their current (new) vision of Jewish Peoplehood. At least, this is the reason that I would like to believe is behind this funding cut that hurts olim.

According to the Jewish Agency, no student is going to be cut off from their entitlement to scholarships for higher education (I am not clear if this is for new students as well as those who are already receiving funding). In a press release statement by the Jewish Agency on Friday, “We will not stop funding our portion of the Student Authority, until the government finds a solution”. They have also made the very fair point that it is their job to bring olim to Israel, and aid them through the initial portion of absorption into Israeli society, but that aid following that initial period, whatever that may be, should lie entirely on the shoulders of the Israeli government.

However, as all too often occurs in Israel, the Student Authority has stated that they cannot confirm any scholarships until the 2012 – 2013 academic year begins. In other words, every  student oleh, currently enrolled in an institution for higher education for the upcoming academic year, whether in their first, second, third year, or in a Masters program, is completely in the dark regarding whether they will even be able to continue their higher education next year. Unless some agency gets their act together somewhere, (no finger pointing here. Really.) the hood will continue to cover all of these students eyes until the last minute.

I am curious here, if it turns out that students will not receive academic scholarships as promised upon making Aliya and are forced to pull out of their higher education programs, if they will be monetarily penalized by those academic institutions to which they have enrolled, as is the norm when a student pulls out once the semester begins.

Personally, I cannot hold the Jewish Agency responsible for this. Really, they are in dire straits, funding wise. Where are they expected to continue pulling money from if they simply do not have it? Clearly they need to cut, have already cut, and likely will continue to cut in the future.

That said, when relevant to their vision, they do continue to create, fund, and run programming worldwide that enhance Jewish Peoplehood and love of Israel, and I venture to say that there are many, many things that the Jewish Agency does, of which the general public is clueless.

These funding cuts hurt student olim. The cuts also adversely affect potential olim-by-choice’s decision to make aliya. Critics of olim-by-choice, who have come to the crass and simple minded conclusions that if any in this oleh constituency has a problem with the situation (any situation, not only higher education), then they should just go back “home”, simply do not understand what the State of Israel and the Jewish People are losing out on, by sidelining these olim.

There is no doubt in my mind that the government needs to pick up the slack and assist student olim with their higher education and ulpans. The future loss of potential that comes with many of these minds will cost the State of Israel dearly, in relation to a few million dollars now. Unfortunately, we will never really know what we missed if there is a real bailout on education for olim.

About the Author
Safra made aliya in 1997, and has been involved in the Jewish world both professionally and voluntarily throughout her life. She currently resides near Haifa and owns a small translation business. Safra is married and has one son.