The pre-mission for ORT’s ground-breaking 70-for-70 delegation to Israel has completed the first leg of its journey with a two-day visit to Vilnius.
The Lithuanian capital is home to the ORT Sholom Aleichem Gymnasium school and the city was once a major hub of world Jewry.
Around a dozen members of the delegation visited the school, which has around 400 students, on Monday. ORT leaders including Avi Ganon, Director General and CEO, joined the touring party shown around the school by principal, Misha Jacobas.
Pupils gave demonstrations of electronics and physics classes in the building’s modern laboratories.
Nikita Yusupov, 11, received a standing ovation for his performance of Dean Martin’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head as pupils from all age groups displayed their singing and acting ability.
For Elina Mesengiser-Garber, the school holds a particularly special place in her heart.
After graduating from Shalom Aleichem more than a decade ago, she studied Law in the Netherlands and Lithuania, and is now a marketing director at a real estate company in Vilnius.
But the new term also marks a new start for Elina’s family, as her daughter is now a pupil at the school.
“Everywhere I go I spread the name of the school,” she explained. “Pupils want to come here not because it’s a Jewish school, but because it’s a prestige school.
“Parents know it is safe for the children – there are no drugs or security issues. I am delighted my daughter studies here now too.”
David Benish, ORT’s national director in the former Soviet Union (FSU), explained that parents were attracted to ORT schools because they provide the best level of general and technological education, and are inclusive. The majority of pupils are not from religious families, and many students are not Jewish.
Delegates on the mission heard details of ORT’s programme across the FSU, where the education network works with more than 1,000 teachers in nine countries, touching the lives of around 31,000 students.
Places in the ORT schools are highly sought after and over-subscribed – with around six applicants per school place in Vilnius. There are also ORT training programmes available for adults. For example the ORT Kesher Net programme provides employment and skills training for women in 17 small Jewish communities.
Mr Benish said: “ORT’s presence in these countries is very important, and very influential.”
He said ORT students and graduates were playing key roles in their communities, often working for – and leading – other Jewish organisations.
On Sunday, the 70-for-70 participants delved into the Jewish history of Lithuania, where the community once numbered around 225,000 people.
In Ponary forest, which was one of the biggest mass-murder sites in Europe in the 1940s, the group stopped to remember the 95 per cent of Lithuania’s Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust.
They saw the mass burial pits and Shoah memorial. Later the tour moved on to Trakai, the historical capital city of Lithuania, and the town’s castle, where the Caraites sect of Jews served as bodyguards to the country’s medieval Great Duke.
The full delegation of ORT’s 70-for-70 mission will begin its visit to Israel on Thursday.