There was not a dry eye among the 350 people at the event in Toronto’s new Four Seasons Hotel as Peter Munk, chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold-mining corporation, related how he and his family escaped from Hungary in 1944 – and not a sound when he revealed that he had attended an ORT school.
Speaking without notes, Mr Munk told how he had grown up in a wealthy family. They had assumed that generations of distinguished contribution to Austria-Hungary in business, the judiciary and politics would insulate them from harm. Realising their mistake, the family found sanctuary in Switzerland thanks to Rudolf Kastner of the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee, who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for their release and that of more than 1,600 other Jews.
Although safe from the Nazis they were destitute, resorting to scavenging in garbage dumps, when the 16-year-old Peter was given the opportunity to go to school. At that time ORT’s activities among refugees in Switzerland were reaching their peak with more than 2,000 students attending 158 vocational training workshops.
“For him this was an escape from being hungry and penniless to gaining purpose,” said Florence Weinstock, for whom the dinner was her last engagement as President of ORT Toronto. “I found it inspiring; it is precisely what we at ORT work so tirelessly for now, to change the lives of others. Here we had Peter Munk, a huge philanthropist who has achieved international success and fame and he said if it weren’t for ORT he would not be where he was today. You could have heard a pin drop.”
ORT Toronto Executive Director Lindy Meshwork explained: “We knew his aunt was a long-time supporter of ORT but we had no idea of his own personal connection, that he had attended an ORT school. We were overwhelmed.”
Mrs Weinstock continued: “It was unusual to hear someone of his stature, in such a public forum, bear his soul and give thanks for a time in his life in which ORT made such a difference.”
ORT Canada Board member Barbara Kingstone added: “Never have we had so many people so touched by such a passionate speech by a man who proved that, with perseverance, anything is possible.”
The dinner raised $350,000 for World ORT’s YOU-niversity programme in Israel and a project for at-risk students in Toronto. But it was also a triumph in introducing ORT and its work to ever wider circles of people in the city, thanks in large part to Elizabeth and Anthony Comper who were honoured at the event for founding FAST (Fight Anti-Semitism Together), a coalition of non-Jewish business and community leaders who come together to speak out against anti-semitism and to fund education and other projects that encourage other non-Jews to speak out.
Raising brand awareness of ORT has been a pillar of Mrs Weinstock’s presidency and having friends and colleagues of the Compers attend the dinner meant a new group feeling the warm embrace of the ORT family.
Another way ORT Toronto has raised its profile has been by its involvement in local projects such as its pedagogical training of Haredi teachers in partnership with OISE, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. Headed by Professor Marcus Benayon, the project has proven so successful that he has been asked to speak about it in Washington and at Harvard.
“The ORT-OISE, now the Lebovic project, has been funded entirely by [prominent land developer and philanthropist] Joe Lebovic. Thanks to his continued commitment, we hope to run this innovative project in Israel for the Haredi community there, too,” said Mrs Weinstock.
Raising brand awareness is something her successor, Janis Finkelstein (who co-chaired this week’s dinner with Liora Yakubowicz), intends to pursue over the coming three years of her term.
“I want to attract more Board members,” Mrs Finkelstein said. “With more people on the Board we have access to more people and we can let them see what we do and how fantastic it is.”
She also wants to build on her predecessor’s work nurturing ORT Toronto’s Next Generation committee.
Mrs Finkelstein specialises in working with developmentally handicapped children and says that being a teacher and being with ORT is a “nice fit”.
“I think ORT is a wonderful organisation that helps individuals to be self-sufficient and being in the classroom I can see how a bit of encouragement goes a long way. It’s exhilarating to help someone learn something so that they can carry on.”
It’s life enhancing, says Mrs Weinstock, who, like her husband, was born in a Displaced Person camp in Germany where ORT was conducting training and education programmes.
“When I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington there was an ORT poster prominently displayed,” she said. “In several languages, including Yiddish, it urged Holocaust Survivors to learn a trade. It offered hope and support to people who had lost everything. The poster made it all more personal to me; it showed how ORT has the power to transform lives and even to save them.”