This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle in the UK. You can read it on the JC website here, or below:
When the pandemic struck and schools in one country after another closed, World ORT was better placed to cope than many organisations.
The London-based education network could draw on the experiences of institutions in one place to pass on advice and guidance to others.
Its message to teachers was “they are not alone and there is help they can tap into through the network,” says Dan Green, who in July became World ORT first British chief executive.
Its family of 28 schools and colleges, plus other affiliated centres, serves some 300,000 young people in more than 30 countries with particular strength in Israel, the Former Soviet Union and Latin America. In Buenos Aires, ORT runs the largest diaspora school with some 8,000 students. Its European presence includes schools in France, Italy and Bulgaria.
Founded in 1880 to teach trades to Jews in Russia, it moved its central office from Switzerland to London in 1979, one of the few international Jewish organisations headquartered here.
Its British associate ORT UK is mainly a fundraising enterprise but it sponsors a mentoring programme, Jump, for pupils not only in Jewish but local non-Jewish schools. World ORT’s international co-operation programme includes training hundreds of teachers outside the Jewish community in South Africa or helping students from Burkina Faso and Senegal take part in a course on water provision — part of its commitment to tikkun olam, Mr Green says.
A former advertising director of the JC, he joined ORT UK as chief executive in 2012, moved down the corridor to become chief operating officer of World ORT four years later and, after a few months as acting head, he was confirmed in the role permanently. Now 48, he is responsible for an organisation with an annual budget of around £58 million.
Overall, he says he was “impressed we managed to move online pretty seamlessly and ensure that students could continue their education”.
But one of the first challenges in the coronavirus outbreak was to aid students unable to switch immediately to digital learning. “We had to go to supporters and raise money to support those students that didn’t have access. You can imagine a family of four or five, two parents working from home, two or three kids in different year groups, with one laptop across all of those people. We had an amazing response.”
Supporters have also contributed more than money, offering virtual master-classes for students in their areas of professional expertise. “That’s been a boon for our students at this time,” he says.
An online professional forum enables teachers to exchange ideas “across borders” on returning to school or providing blended learning (which combines school with home-based study).
Its collaborative reach has proved “the strength of the network”, Mr Green says. “We want to ensure the best practices, whether from Buenos Aires, Paris or Moscow, can be used for the benefit of all, and perhaps for the wider world as well.”
Like other educational organisations, a priority has been on addressing questions of mental health and wellbeing. “People have lost family from coronavirus , we have lost teachers. Students are seeing parents lose their jobs.”
ORT maintains its historic interest in vocationally-oriented education though training has naturally moved on from when it first set up 140 years ago. Now it includes subjects such as ophthalmology or web design.
Even before the pandemic with its yet unknown economic fall-out, the organisation was looking at what the job market might hold for young people and how best to prepare them for the future, when professions that might have once been popular could vanish with artificial intelligence.
As well as equipping students with useful skills, ORT wants them to graduate with the right philosophy. Its education has “a focus on global citizenship and on making sure all our students around the world understand how they fit in, not just within their own local community but in the wider world,” Mr Green says.
“It is important they have that recognition and how they can help other people less fortunate.”