World ORT, the global education network driven by Jewish values and founded in 1880, is looking trim, youthful and vigorous. This impression is personified by its energetic director-general and CEO, Avi Ganon, 47, who was appointed to the position in September 2017, after heading World ORT’s operations in Russia and most recently, in Israel. Reflecting the organization’s new approach, Ganon led a rebranding of World ORT’s long-time motto “Educating for Life” to the more positive “Impact through Education.”
Few organizations in the Jewish world have lasted as long as World ORT and have made as great an impact on the Jewish world. “World ORT has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of graduates,” explains Ganon. “It provides the skills to students who want to make a change or learn a profession that will help them progress in life.”
One dramatic example in recent Jewish history that Ganon cites was the establishment of World ORT schools in the 70 displaced persons camps after World War II, which helped retrain Holocaust survivors. “Their retraining and the help that World ORT provided them is what brought them back to humanity and gave them the faith to say, ‘I can learn and become productive,’” says Ganon.
The organization, which will be celebrating its 140th anniversary next year, was founded in Saint Petersburg at the end of the 19th century to help Jews acquire skills that would enable them to become self-sufficient. Over the years, the skills needed for success have changed and World ORT has adapted with the times, emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, which are needed in today’s hi-tech business environment.
Yet, World ORT does much more than teach technical skills, transmitting Jewish identity, knowledge and values in all of its schools.
“World ORT schools around the world teach Jewish subjects as well as general and science and technology studies,” says Ganon. “A winning combination for a good Jewish school in the Diaspora is one where they can study robotics, science and technology at the highest level – and together with that learn about Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and study Hebrew.” The non-denominational Jewish educational experience that World ORT provides, explains Ganon, helps bring students back to their roots and strengthens their connection with Israel and Zionism.
When Ganon refers to World ORT as a worldwide network, he is not exaggerating. World ORT is in 35 countries, numbering 300,000 beneficiaries and 10,500 teachers across its network. The largest World ORT school is located on two campuses in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and boasts an enrollment of 9,000 students. The schools in Moscow and Kiev have 1,500 each, says Ganon, and the other schools each have between 500 and 600 students. He explains that the World ORT schools in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are public state schools, while those in other countries, such as in South America, are private institutions.
World ORT’s far-flung educational network is one of the organization’s biggest strengths, says Ganon.
“If you don’t share information today and if you are not sustained from different sources of information, you cannot learn or teach properly. World ORT’s strength lies in its networking – for students, with face-to-face seminars and online learning between students in the different countries that World ORT serves – and for educators and principals.
“Imagine the strength that we can concentrate in one room. World ORT works with 35 different countries. The sharing and global assets of World ORT in education are unmatched.”
Ganon, who was born and raised in Beersheba to Moroccan immigrants, explains the two major challenges of leading the educational network in a rapidly changing technological world.
“We must prepare children today for an unknown future. By the time a child entering first grade today graduates high school, 70% of the positions in the employment market will be for jobs that do not exist today.” No one can predict which professions will be in demand in 15 to 20 years, he explains.
“We are dealing with changes in technology that will influence industry in unknown ways,” he says. World ORT schools teach students how to think, how to deal with solving problems and how to network in order to find new answers. With these skills, he explains, World ORT graduates will be equipped to enter new professions years later.
The second challenge relates to the changing Jewish world. World ORT is a non-profit organization, explains Ganon, and 70% of donations come from the United States and Canada. The previous generation, he says, gave unstintingly to Israel, World ORT and other Jewish charities. That generation is gone, and World ORT has to turn to the next generation.
“The new generation – justifiably so – wants full transparency to know where their money is going. Most donations today are designated for specific projects.” Additionally, many in today’s Jewish community feel that their charitable donations should be turned inward, supporting their communities themselves, rather than donating to organizations in other places.
Ganon suggests that donations to World ORT are an investment in the future of Jewish life everywhere.
“If one is looking for a good investment, it’s best to invest in the future – in Jewish education – in an organization that with this investment, can produce graduates who will excel in academia and in innovation. The return will be worthwhile.” The added Jewish educational value that is present in World ORT schools, he adds, is a counterbalance to the dangers of assimilation and intermarriage.
Ganon is passionate about the impact that World ORT schools make in their communities, and views World ORT as a type of worldwide ministry for Jewish education.
“A good Jewish school is the nucleus for the local community. When World ORT comes into a community, it makes the school into an exceptional Jewish school where parents will want to send their children.”
In the past year, World ORT has signed agreements to affiliate with schools in South Africa and Colombia, and is concluding negotiations for similar agreements with Jewish schools in Singapore and Holland.
“I want World ORT to be the first choice of every community head who wants to combine Jewish education with science and technology,” says Ganon.
Ganon is comfortable in his role as World ORT’s leader and is determined to ensure its continuity and success.
“If I want to leave a legacy, it would be that when Jewish communities have a question or issue about Jewish education, that World ORT will be the place where they turn first.”
Remarkably, World ORT’s mission statement remains the same as it was at the end of the 19th century. In May 2020, it will celebrate its 140th anniversary at its gala General Assembly in Moscow. What is Ganon’s goal for the future?
“That it should last for another 140 years,” he smiles. More seriously, he says, “The Jewish world needs an organization like World ORT.”