To celebrate the 130th anniversary of World ORT, the New Jersey region held its own luncheon last month highlighting the organization’s successes in advancing the Jewish people through education and occupational training.
Begun in St. Petersburg, Russia, ORT is now located in countries from Africa to South America to Asia.
“We have a proud history,” said Lynn Leeb of Morris Plains, national marketing and communications chair and board chair of ORT’s Bramson College in New York, the nation’s only junior college under Jewish auspices.
“This is really a milestone year for us,” she added. “We are the second-oldest organization to serve the Jewish people. We really feel we’re doing worthwhile work that connects us to the larger Jewish world and to so many organizations.”
Last year this reporter got a firsthand look at that worthwhile work while on a tour of ORT projects in Ukraine and Moldova. Confounding expectations, the tour showed off viable Jewish communities, including schools where children are taught everything from Hebrew to Jewish ritual and holidays.
On the ORT mission — which took place last Aug. 31-Sept. 4, I and three other American-Jewish journalists were given a tour of three ORT-run schools and another that the organization had just been asked to take over by the Israeli government.
In Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, we visited the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Campus, a bustling, multi-story JCC building equipped with the latest technology. There we met single mothers being trained by ORT for highly skilled technology jobs.
The Ukrainian government pays for the buildings as well as the salaries for teachers of secular subjects; the Jewish subjects often fall to shlihim, or Israeli emissaries. Rows of computers and Smart Boards lined classrooms in which students — who are frequently cited in national skills competitions — learn a host of subjects, from English to robotics to web design.
In 2008, the financially strapped Jewish Agency for Israel cut about $3 million from its Heftziba program, which funds Jewish schooling, including teacher salaries, security, and, most importantly, transportation in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Students sometimes must be bused from long distances and cannot afford to travel at their own expense.
“We lost in some cities up to 15 percent of our students as most of them come from very low socio-economic populations,” said World ORT president Robert Singer, who came from London headquarters to accompany our group.
Jewish programming was cut; teachers had to be laid off. With school set to reopen in weeks for the 2010-11 school year, $1.2 million is still needed this year to operate at the “minimal, acceptable” level, he said.
The intertwining of the Jewish world was demonstrated in Odessa where I visited a family in their tiny apartment just blocks from the ORT Technology Centre, where the two sons attend school. The boys proudly showed off the academic awards they had won.
Their grandfather conveyed his thanks for what the American-Jewish community has done for his family, showing me a card from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, through which he gets his essential prescriptions. The grandmother wanted to give us a gift, returning from the kitchen with a bag of apples. The “Joint,” like JAFI, is a beneficiary of the annual fund-raising campaigns run by Jewish federations in North America.
‘We welcome you’
Although there are Chabad and other Orthodox schools operating throughout the FSU, they serve only those who are Jewish according to the traditional criterion of matrilineal descent. The ORT schools reach out to all Jews, including the secular community, accepting children who can only point to a Jewish father or grandparent.
“We say if you want to return to the Jewish people, we welcome you,” said David Benish, ORT’s representative for Ukraine, Moldova, Baltic, Central Asia, and the Caucasian states, who also accompanied our group.
Singer said generations of communism and persecution had cut off many people from their Jewish roots. The schools make a point of including families in holiday celebrations, and it is youngsters who are now instilling Jewish tradition in their elders. In meetings with parents and students, I heard stories of families who had begun lighting Shabbat candles and adopting other Jewish practices at the insistence of their children.
Nowhere was that demonstrated more strikingly than at the Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum where teenage twin sisters Elena and Viktoria Praisman said they were given the last name of their Ukrainian mother at birth to shield them from anti-Semitism.
After attending the ORT school for several years they asked their parents for permission to legally adopt their father’s Jewish-sounding last name.
“It is a part of us, our roots,” said Viktoria.
Both sisters said they previously knew little about their Jewish heritage.
“We are now proud to be Jewish,” said Viktoria.
Earlier that day — Sept. 1, the traditional first day of school in the FSU — I watched children and parents gather for a Ukrainian tradition: bearing bouquets of flowers for teachers and administrators.
In a moving ceremony, they sang the Ukrainian national anthem and “Hatikva,” recited poems in Hebrew and Ukrainian, and sang and danced to familiar Jewish tunes.
Although many acknowledged that anti-Semitism is itself a “tradition” in Ukraine, when we accompanied a group of students, including several kipa-wearing boys, from the Odessa school down the street. Passers-by took no notice. The school itself flies both Israeli and Ukrainian flags.
I asked one yarmulka-wearing teen if he experiences anti-Semitism. He shrugged. “Some people smile” when they see him pass, he said, a nod to Odessa’s historic past as a center for Jewish culture.
At all the schools there were signs of renewed Jewish life. At the Rambam School in Kishinev, newly designated an ORT school, students smiled and greeted visitors with “shalom.” At the ORT Herzl Technology Lyceum in Kishinev the bell to change classes played “Shalom Aleichem” and other Jewish tunes.
The unusual bells were the gift of wealthy businessman Ilan Shor, the 23-year-old president of ORT Moldova, with whom we had dinner. He had made significant financial endowments to the school, recognized as one of the top academic institutions in the country.
We also dined with the 30-year-old president of ORT Odessa, Yakov Udis, whose two small daughters attend the Odessa school. Udis had made aliya, but returned to be part of the burgeoning capitalism of his homeland, becoming a self-made millionaire in agri-business and pledging $4,000 a month to the school.
Our jam-packed itinerary also included dinner with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, tea with the president of Moldova, and lunch with the German ambassador to Ukraine and her husband — who although not Jewish often reports on the FSU for German-Jewish media.
We made a stop at Uman, which, before the Holocaust, was home to 17,000 Jews and where Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) spent the last five months of his life. Every year before Rosh Hashana, some 25,000 of his followers — mostly hasidim from Israel — come to Uman to pray at his grave.
When we arrived, men in payot and tzitzit swarmed through its streets. The synagogue was being refurbished in advance of the High Holy Days while women were at work in the kitchen baking thousands of mini-hallahs, which are given out Rosh Hashana morning. The large mikva and the immense Sha’arei Zion Hotel were being readied for the expected visitors, and the streets were lined with makeshift shops selling religious trinkets and kosher food.
Thanks to ORT and Jewish communities in Israel, North America, and beyond, Jewish life has returned to Eastern Europe.