This article first appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. You can read it on their site here, or below:
I have been privileged to be involved in Jewish communal life since the early 1960s. I am also fortunate to have lots of choices in life. I could, for example, spend a lot more time reading my volume on Churchill rather than thinking about what is on the agenda for our next Board of Trustees meeting.
So why am I signing up for a second four-year term as president of World ORT, the global education network driven by Jewish values?
Partly because this has been a remarkable period in the history of our organization — due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And also because as I reflect on the challenges of my first term and acknowledge that there have been many, I see that we have met them. We will continue to meet them, even though the future has a rather fuzzy look to it right now.
ORT reaches more than 300,000 beneficiaries in over 30 countries every year. Our teachers are leading classes every day for students in countries as diverse as Mexico and Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and South Africa.
For 140 years since its foundation in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1880, ORT has transformed lives through training and education. While we once focused on teaching 19th-century Russian Jews essential trades like tailoring or ironmongery, we have evolved to provide 21st century skills in STEM subjects and innovative fields such as robotics and artificial intelligence.
Using ground-breaking technology is second nature to us. This pandemic’s demand that learning take place off-site gave ORT schools a headstart in March. Our teachers and principals were able to quickly adapt their curriculum to ensure every student could continue their education from home as soon as possible when lockdowns were enforced.
In the future, we will be able to expand this level of expertise, but as great a challenge as any over the next four years will be our ability to grow our resources to support our activities globally. ORT’s funding comes in large part from individuals living in the United States, Canada, the UK and Switzerland. Quite simply, despite the public support currently available, we would not be able to function without these supporters.
The education provided by ORT schools is exceptional. It changes lives. On a trip to one of our high schools in Kiev, Ukraine, I met a 17-year-old girl. I always ask our students, “What are you going to do in life?” This girl knew she was going to get a law degree from Colombia University. Neither of her parents had gone to school, but she was already talking about her future. All of us have dreams; seldom are all those dreams achieved. But ORT gives youngsters an opportunity to dream — and hopes that could never have existed in their lives because of when and where they were born.
I was always taught the importance of lifelong study. In giving back, I want to help others have the chance to achieve the kind of educational success that World ORT and its affiliates such as ORT America provide.
Why am I still doing this? Because the great joy of leading ORT is the opportunity to observe youngsters around the world in their learning environment, to see their test results which reflect outstanding professional support, and to interact with the many dedicated professionals and teachers who fill the educational environments where these youngsters are learning.
Dr Conrad Giles is the president of World ORT. He was re-elected to a second term at the organization’s General Assembly on May 24. A leading pediatric ophthalmologist, he is chief emeritus of ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.