ORT was founded in St Petersburg, Tsarist Russia, in 1880 to provide employable skills for Russia’s impoverished Jews. The organization’s founding fathers were Nikolai Bakst, Baron Horace Gunzburg and Samuel Poliakov.
Together with several influential members of the St Petersburg Jewish community they obtained permission to form ORT, a “charitable fund for a useful purpose”, in honor of the Tsar’s 25th anniversary. The name “ORT” was coined from the acronym of the Russian words “Obshestvo Remeslennogo i zemledelcheskogo Truda”, meaning “The Society for Trades and Agricultural Labour”.
ORT distributed funds to Jewish schools for handicraft and agricultural training and provided grants or loans to artisans and farmers. In the early 1900s the organization began to sponsor cooperative ventures, to support training programs in Jewish schools and to establish its own vocational schools.
During and after the First World War, ORT’s workshops, credit and labour offices saved thousands from starvation and unemployment. In 1921 the ORT Union (today’s World ORT) was created to coordinate fundraising efforts and to oversee ORT’s growing activities in Europe and elsewhere.
Through the interwar years ORT supported Jewish farmers with equipment, loans and training while graduates of ORT’s technical schools gained employment as technicians and engineers. In the 1930s ORT courses helped Jewish refugees fleeing the rise of Hitler to prepare for life in other countries.
In the Soviet Union, ORT worked with the authorities to establish industries and supply materials and machinery but was forced to close down its operations in 1938.
The movement of Jewish refugees led to the development of new ORT programs beyond Europe, mainly in South America. In Europe, during the Holocaust, ORT became a “Passport to Life” as our trainees in ghettos received extra food rations and were selected for labour details. In many cases, this meant the difference between life and death.
After the war ORT trained tens of thousands of survivors and displaced persons from Jewish communities throughout Europe. ORT graduates contributed to the building of the early Jewish community of Palestine and, after the founding of the State of Israel, ORT became a key feature in the country’s education system.
ORT also turned its attention to the needs of “forgotten” Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Iran.
In 1960 ORT was asked by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to undertake technical training programs in Africa. Seeing this as an integral part of its mission, ORT took up the challenge and began a new phase of humanitarian activities outside the international Jewish community while at the same time expanding its work with Jewish communities in France, Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East and India.
In Ethiopia, ORT received permission to operate in the Gondar province in 1977. It brought crafts, vocational skills, modern agricultural methods, medical help and general and Jewish education to these remote areas.
In the 1990s ORT returned to Russia, the country of its birth, followed by other countries in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Eastern Europe.
In addition to its existing Jewish day schools in Latin America and elsewhere, ORT established day schools in the major Jewish communities in the FSU as well as vocational training centers for women in rural FSU communities.
In 2007 ORT founded the World ORT Kadima Mada educational network in Israel.