Tycoon's Schools Suffer Along With Company

A network of Jewish schools spanning Russia and many former Soviet countries says it is facing budget cuts and shutdowns as the global financial crisis bites into its benefactors' real estate empire.

More than 100 institutions are operated by Or Avner, a free school system that gives an Orthodox Jewish education to 13,000 students throughout Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states.

Lev Leviev, an Uzbek-born tycoon and one of Israel's richest men, set up Or Avner in the early 1990s, and it soon became the region's biggest single Jewish-school network. He is also one of the organization's biggest benefactors.

But his real estate development firm, Africa Israel Investments, has been hit hard by the crisis. Its Tel Aviv-listed shares have lost 87 percent of their value since the start of the year, and some of its units say they will cut staff.

The Or Avner network denied that Leviev was cutting his funding, saying the problem was with other benefactors.

"Leviev is not reducing his contributions at all," Or Avner director David Mondshine said in an e-mail.

"In the wake of the global economic crisis and the economic situation in Russia and former Soviet countries, the support of local and overseas philanthropists has been greatly reduced," he said.

He declined to name Or Avner's annual budget, although a number of separate sources in Israel say it is $60 million, with half coming from Leviev.

Or Avner says it will avoid shutting schools down, but officials and Jewish community leaders in countries where the network operates say it is inevitable.

"Across the board, there is a belt-tightening process," said Moscow's chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt.

The Israeli education ministry said Leviev's educational programs in the Jewish state were scrapped two weeks ago.

"It may be the financial situation that has caused the end of these programs," said ministry spokeswoman Lital Apter in Jerusalem.

Jewish education is seen as an important freedom to many ex-Soviet Jews, who suffered from restrictions on religion in Soviet times and whose communities have been dwindling since mass immigrations to the West and Israel started in the 1970s.

Leviev is credited with rescuing schools in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, part-owns the only kosher restaurant in Kazakhstan's financial capital Almaty and was recently asked by Tajikistan's tiny Jewish community to rebuild its only synagogue.

Some of Leviev's wealth comes from a diamond business that is privately held, so there is little information about how it is weathering the crisis. But the publicly listed parts of his businesses have been warning of tough times ahead.