The work ORT is doing to strengthen Jewish communities worldwide has been showcased during an event at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
The session – Safeguarding and preserving the infrastructure of global Jewish communities – focussed largely on the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic but included a general view of ORT’s global efforts.
Dan Green, World ORT Director General and CEO, told the meeting: “When the pandemic hit and our schools were all forced to close, we at ORT knew it was our responsibility to help them as quickly as possible.”
He said the ORT network had identified three categories of needs: ensuring students had the resources to continue their education through distance learning; assisting families and schools with tuition support; providing emergency services to teaching staff and school principals – “sometimes just being a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on”.
The JFNA represents 146 Jewish Federations and over 300 communities in the United States. It raises and distributes more than $3 billion annually to support social welfare, social services and educational needs – including ORT programs worldwide.
JFNA supporters at the session also heard from Mikhail Libkin, Director of ORT Russia, and from school teacher Dany Maknouz about ORT’s response in the former Soviet Union, Italy and more widely across Europe.
Speaking on the webinar, Dan Green said: “The economic hit our communities have faced over the past seven months has been severe and our tuition fund is there to ensure our schools can remain operational as families unfortunately struggle to meet their commitments.
“This is in effect a double hit: parents lose their jobs, they can no longer afford tuition fees and suddenly overnight our schools’ operating budgets are slashed. Countries hardest hit were Italy, France and Spain in Europe, and right across Latin America, in Argentina and Brazil.
“Our fund importantly relieves some of that pressure on schools and thereby gives parents some much-needed breathing space.
“As a network we have focussed on issues such as the mental health and wellbeing of our students during lockdown and as they return to school.
“We have responded in a way I am truly proud of. Our supporters around the world, including the JFNA and individual federations, have helped us towards solving some of these problems.”
Providing an insight into the challenges ORT is tackling in the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Libkin explained the organization’s presence in the region – working in nine countries and more than two dozen cities, with almost 24,000 students and 1,000 teachers.
He said ORT was determined to ensure “Jewish communities have the best schools in the region, to provide Jewish children with the best education and the best possible future” while reintroducing the Jewish identity that was lost in the Soviet era.
Mikhail described his own journey from ORT student to lead ORT Russia and outlined how the organization had helped him grow as a leader not only within the Moscow community but further afield – as a speaker at international events and throughout the federation movement.
Speaking from Milan, Italy, Dany Maknouz outlined three areas in which the pandemic was threatening Jewish life. ORT’s representative in the city and a teacher at the Scuola Della Comunita Ebraica, she said the financial hardships community members were facing would have a knock-on effect on whether families could continue to purchase kosher food, pay school fees and contribute economically towards the Jewish community.
She added: “Now that everything has stopped, now that all activities are blocked, people are losing their sense of community and instead are focussing on the small group closely surrounding them.”
ORT’s help in providing resources such as laptops for students to continue their education at home and access to teacher training courses had been, she said, the “equivalent to a hug in the past, a pat on the back, or saying ‘you are not alone in this moment’. We need each other and every help in this period, to be able to imagine a better future with the best for everyone”.
Other speakers at Monday’s session included leaders from other JFNA partners such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).