Under his stewardship, the 133-year-old organisation has become renowned for its professionalism and effectiveness in delivering innovative and practical solutions to the needs of Jewish and non-Jewish communities across five continents. But Mr Singer deflected the praise directed at him by professional and lay colleagues.
“ORT is in the best possible shape now,” he told the gathering at ORT House, London. “It’s a completely different organisation today but not because of me, because of you; because you do the job. When I look back and see what people can do it’s outstanding, truly outstanding.”
Although looking forward to working at the WJC, Mr Singer deeply appreciated his time at World ORT.
“There’s not been one boring day for me. I’ve loved the job very much, mainly because I love the people who are involved, both as lay leaders and professionals. I was happy every day to look in the mirror when I woke up because I knew I was going to do something important. It’s a place that I like with people that I like… very few people have this privilege.”
World ORT President Dr Jean de Gunzburg and President Emeritus Sir Maurice Hatter were joined by a group of prominent lay leaders most of whom have served with Mr Singer for his entire term – British ORT Vice-President and World ORT Trust Chairman Ivor Connick, British ORT President Simon Alberga, former British ORT Executive Director Jon Benjamin, British ORT Trustee Mark Mishon, British ORT Vice-President and former World ORT Control Committee Chairman Robert Bieber MBE, and the Chair of World ORT’s International Cooperation Advisory Committee, David Woolf.
But it was Mr Singer’s long-time professional colleague, World ORT Chief Operating Officer Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, who led the tributes.
“Today is a sad day; but World ORT’s loss is the World Jewish Congress’s gain,” she said. “Through your 14 years as CEO here you have continuously striven to improve every aspect of World ORT’s network; you have driven up standards of professional and organisational development, the public perception of ORT and internal standards of accountability. You have raised this organisation to new heights. Without doubt you are one of the best CEOs in the Jewish world.”
Her statement was echoed by Sir Maurice, who said: “Robert, you are probably close to being the highest Jewish philanthropic leader and I want to wish you mazal tov – enjoy whatever you do!”
Dr de Gunzburg, whose background is in cancer research and biotechnological entrepreneurship, noted how much he had learned from Mr Singer as he became increasingly involved in the organisation which his ancestor, Baron Horace de Gunzburg, helped to found in 1880.
“This has been my first job as a lay leader and I learned from you what it is to manage a large, international organisation. I respect the way you do it, the way you attract people and the way you have a certain discipline but at the same time you are available for all people in the organisation and outside it – and people around the world who want to interact with it. I really see you as a great leader of organisations.”
ORT had become well established as a Jewish organisation under Mr Singer, he said.
“It used to be the best kept secret of Jewish education but that’s not the case anymore; the name of ORT is really out there and the future looks bright. As Sonia said, you have brought the organisation to new heights… your steps will be tough to follow.”
Mr Mishon and Mr Bieber were among those who welcomed Mr Singer to World ORT in 1999. Mr Mishon said: “Robert is a leader; he is the leader of a large and complicated organisation around the world and leaders need followers. I am a very proud follower of Robert’s.”
Mr Bieber added: “I have been involved in ORT for nearly 50 years and have experienced six director generals in that time. Robert has brought an extra dimension to what he has done. Wherever I go, in whatever field I’m involved in, whether it’s mental health, prison welfare – everybody knows Robert! He has a dimension which is far broader than the field in which he operates at ORT.”
He, too, paid tribute to the way Mr Singer had engineered positive change in the organisation.
“When I joined ORT it was seen as an ambassador for the Jewish People. It’s been a great privilege to see Robert expand this in a way which has serviced the Jewish People, it has serviced the State of Israel, and of course it’s advanced ORT to a status which is pre-eminent in charities Jewish and otherwise. We have been very fortunate to have him.”
From among the staff, the Head of Publications, Geoffrey Yantian, has served under three director generals since joining World ORT in 1983.
“It really has been an amazing 14 years working with Robert,” he said. “Right from the start, within a few months, things started to change; there was a new sense of purpose; everything became much more professional.”
But this, his last day in the office is not the end of Mr Singer’s relationship with ORT. He said he would continue to make himself available to World ORT in an advisory capacity over the coming months and to remain on the boards of some national ORT organisations – and to remain a donor.