International nonprofit World ORT leaders visit Pittsburgh
World ORTWorld ORT visits Pittsburgh to talk importance of education

International nonprofit World ORT leaders visit Pittsburgh

The group works to promote education in underserved Jewish communities around the world and serves as a "last-chance attempt" to reach non-practicing Jews in these areas.

Students explore technology at ORT, the smallest of Rio’s four Jewish day schools. (Photo courtesy of ORT)
Students explore technology at ORT, the smallest of Rio’s four Jewish day schools. (Photo courtesy of ORT)

Leaders from World ORT, a nonprofit devoted to promoting education and skill-building in underserved Jewish communities around the world, visited Pittsburgh in late July to raise awareness of the continuing challenges the organization attempts to address.

World ORT funds and oversees a network of schools across multiple continents, reaching over 300,000 individuals each year. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh allocates money each year to the organization, contributing specifically to the ORT Herzl Jewish School in Kishinev, Moldova, which serves 670 students and their families.

World ORT owns only one facility itself, but works with local and national governments — especially those in the former Soviet Union — to bring high-quality education to students who otherwise would languish in faulty and oftentimes underfunded public schools. The organization focuses on instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as Jewish education, according to Conrad Giles, president of World ORT.

“We function within educational frameworks and within educational facilities that are owned and operated by the countries in which we are functioning,” Giles said. “World ORT does not own the facilities but provides them with curriculum designed to enhance educational opportunities.”

In addition to its extensive work in countries with only small Jewish populations, the organization operates in Israel, working to “level the playing field” for those in the more resource-scarce periphery of the country, or the area outside of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv region, according to Giles. He noted that since many students are out of school by early afternoon in Israel, after-school programming can supplement school curriculum, as well as provide enriching “social activity.”

“The long-term answer to poverty in a high-tech society is education,” said Jim Lodge, senior development officer at World ORT, who accompanied Giles in Pittsburgh.

Schools funded by World ORT serve Jewish and non-Jewish students, as some non-Jews are lured by the high quality of science education the schools provide.

But in addition to primary education, the schools serve in many cases as a last-chance attempt to give non-practicing Jews a foray into religious life and spirituality. These individuals are “barely” connected to their Jewish roots, noted Lodge, and without exposure to some semblance of Jewish culture and practices, they will most likely be unreachable as they grow older.

Without continued financial support for Jewish instruction in certain countries, especially in the former Soviet Union, high rates of intermarriage could spell “the end” of the religion, he warned.

Lodge noted that graduates of World ORT programs have gone on to become leaders in Hillel, Limud and other Jewish organizations, demonstrating the fruitful effects of these programs.

World ORT has not been immune from the effects of an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world. A terrorist attack against a kosher food market in Paris in 2015 occurred across the street from a World ORT-funded school, prompting the organization to devote funding toward increased security measures, including bulletproof windows.

“You have to see the resilience of the youngsters in those schools to become energized to do the work that we do,” Giles said.

He added that World ORT leaders decided to come to Pittsburgh to promote the work that World ORT engages in around the world, acknowledging that the organization has not adequately informed potential donors about the success of programs it supports.

“We recognize the importance of what we’re doing, the excellence of our product, and further recognize that our position in the minds of donors is secondary to a number of other organizations in the Federation landscape of funding,” Giles said. “Most individuals who give don’t really recognize World ORT.

“We have not taken the pains to market ourselves, in my view, adequately over the past 50 years,” he added. PJC

Jonah Berger can be reached at Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.

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