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In a Ukrainian Jewish orphanage, Tikva, economic downturn hits home

ODESSA, Ukraine (JTA) — In a colorful room at the Tikva Children’s Home here, 30 young boys stand in two straight lines and wait for the cue signaling that they are to start singing.

The children, students in a music class, are performing “Mind Your Manners” by the Philadelphia-based duo Chiddy Bang. It isn’t just their singing voices they are developing. Their performance is being recorded on video to be sent to potential donors in the United States.

“Take a second look and you’ll see, there is no one like me,” they sing.

Part music education and part fundraising, the dual-purpose performance underscores the depth of the financial crisis facing Tikva, an orphanage that serves impoverished and orphaned Jewish children from Ukraine, Moldova and southern Russia.

The orphanage is struggling to provide for its nearly 2,000 charges in the midst of a global financial downturn that has decimated its budget. In 2008, the organization had a $12 million budget, but with donations down 30 percent, the budget is now $7.3 million, according to CEO Refael Kruskal.

“A few years ago I would pick up a phone and someone would give you $100,000, $200,000,” Kruskal told JTA. “Now it’s two or three meetings, and I have to get on a plane.”

The challenges facing Tikva are a sign of the toll that the global economic downturn is having on Jewish institutions in already financially strapped nations.

The organization was founded in 1996 as a project of the Orthodox outreach organization Ohr Sameyach, which dispatched Israeli-born Rabbi Shlomo Baksht to help invigorate Jewish life in Odessa. The organization is now independent, an Ohr Sameyach representative told JTA, though Baksht, who is also Odessa’s chief rabbi, remains vice president of Tikva’s board and a member of its senior staff.

Tikva also operates ancillary programs, including an adult education program, a synagogue, a newspaper and a television program. These, too, had been run by Ohr Somayach.

Over the last three years, the orphanage has had to cut back on its services and offerings. Kruskal says the hard part has been doing that without sacrificing the organization’s ability to provide for its young charges.

“We can’t allow for children not to be saved,” said Kruskal, who has been at Tikva for 13 years. “We can’t allow for children to stay on the streets in an impossible situation. It would be easy to say, ‘OK, let’s make another cutback.’ But now it would mean cutting into the flesh of our organization.”

Tikva’s programs for the elderly have had to be outsourced to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. A school about an hour outside of Odessa was closed down, with its students now commuting to the city. And the number of hot meals for children in the orphanages has been scaled back.

Tikva’s orphanage directors say they appreciate the financial difficulties but try not to be distracted by them.

“My main goal is just to give them more love, more affection,” said Chava Melamed, who has been the director of the Tikva infants’ home, which serves children younger than 5, for four years. “When I came here I wanted to make this a home, not an orphanage.”

From the outside, the facilities appear somewhat bleak (with the exception of the new girls’ home built in 2006), occupying old buildings with gray facades in the Moldavanka neighborhood. But inside, the facilities are filled with life: toddlers babbling to each other as they build Lego castles, boys with yarmulkes participating in a dance class scored to Top 40 songs, girls lounging in a common room.

Taking a break from playing a video game in a brightly lit computer room that will soon become an athletics facility in the boys’ home, Sasha Tokarev, 13, says the impact that Tikva has had on his life cannot be overstated.

“For a lot of people, it’s easier for their parents to have them come here,” Tokarev, who has been at Tikva for seven years, said through a translator.

There is a strong religious component to Tikva’s work. Kruskal says Tikva believes “that the best for these kids is that they should have a religious upbringing” — in these parts that means Orthodox. But Kruskal says he doesn’t fight if the children begin to drift from religious observance.

While only Jewish children are accepted in the three Tikva homes, excess clothing is donated to Ukrainian state orphanages and a large group of local kids receive about one hot meal a month from Tikva, according to Kruskal.

Approximately 400 of Tikva’s graduates have moved to Israel, and about 70 are serving in the Israeli army. Tikva’s Israel branch is a separate organization with an annual budget of about $1 million.

Most of Tikva’s funding comes from foundations and private donors in the United States, United Kingdom and Israel, but Kruskal says he recently expanded outreach efforts to South Africa and Brazil, among other countries.

Tikva does have some big-name supporters. Owners of the apparel company Ecko underwrote all administrative costs for the charity’s American fundraising operation for many years. Among the members of Tikva’s board of directors are the Ukrainian-born Olympic figure skater Oksana Baiul and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg.

Kruskal says he used to spend just one or two months of the year fundraising; now it consumes about half of his time. He’s had some successes, as when he found a sponsor to fund Tikva’s summer camp this year, which had been canceled the two previous seasons.

When speaking to donors around the world, Kruskal says he tries to remind them that they’re only a few Jewish degrees removed from the situation of the kids in Tikva’s care.

“I could have been a child in the home, and what would I have expected for somebody else to do for me?” he said.

Kruskal says the Jewish community has a chance to act faster than it did 60 years ago in the build-up to the Holocaust.

“Our job is to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. “We should be effective faster than Jewry was then to guard the safety of these kids.”