An emotional celebration of ORT India’s golden jubilee


Hundreds of ORT India’s alumni have joined international guests to celebrate the organisation’s 50th anniversary in a moving display of gratitude for the head start it gave them in life.

More than 400 people “モ one-tenth of Mumbai’s Jewish community “モ battled the city’s notorious mid-week traffic to mark the golden jubilee of an organization which has played a critical role in the history of India’s Jews.

They joined the children of ORT India’s first chairman and co-founder, Gerhard Gabriel, former ORT India director Joe Guedj and his wife Julie, all of whom had flown in from Israel and England at short notice for the event, and World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer on his first trip to the sub-continent.

Jonathan Mapgaonkar, ORT India’s Chairman, said it was very satisfying to see how the event had drawn people the long distances across the vast city of more than 20 million people.

“It means that people value ORT,” Mr Mapgaonkar said. “It was emotionally highly charged,” said ORT India National Director Benjamin Isaac. “Everyone spoke from the heart so the speeches meant that dinner was delayed from 9.30pm until 11.30pm “モ but no-one left; everyone stayed, such was the depth of feeling.”

David Gabriel, son of ORT India’s co-founder, was there with his wife, Susan, and sister Miriam.

“[My father] willingly gave his time because he knew that for many youngsters, ORT represented the only means by which they could advance. And helping people is what he was passionate about,” Mr Gabriel wrote in a letter for the event’s programme. “He got tremendous satisfaction seeing the various well-paid jobs that ORT graduates often secured. On some occasions these new ORT graduates earned more in their first job than even their parents were earning. Such was the impact that ORT had on the lives and on the families of these youngsters. What a legacy. Long may it continue.”

The event was the highpoint of a week of activities in which Mr Singer visited ORT India’s education and training programmes and discussed the organisation’s future.

“ORT India has played a critical role in the history of India’s Jewish community,” Mr Singer said. “The education it provided propelled many Jews from incredibly humble village backgrounds into successful careers in the professions and civil service. And many made aliyah thanks to the way ORT brought them closer to their Jewish identity. Now they are in the process of developing a strategic plan to take the organization forward.”

In the face of a small and dwindling Jewish community which does not have a significant entrepreneurial donor base, ORT India must find a way to increase its attractiveness to potential students but does not have immediate sources of funds to set up the necessary new courses.

In the 40 years that Mr Mapgaonkar has been involved in ORT he has designed vocational courses and sat as an examiner. But there is no longer a demand for his courses in turning and mechanical draftsmanship.

“India’s Jews want their children to go for higher qualifications, to become engineers, doctors and specialists in the use of IT, for example with animation “モ something that will get them some station in life. Today you have to do very well academically to get ahead and currently ORT isn’t doing that, except in computing,” said Mr Mapgaonkar.

Being part of the ORT family worldwide means that there is a huge reservoir of expertise to be drawn on. Mr Mapgaonkar voiced admiration, for example, for ORT France’s post-high school courses for dental technicians and optometrists; he wants to explore the possibility of applying to his country the collaboration between ORT in the Former Soviet Union and Microsoft; and he would like to introduce Smart Classes as World ORT is doing to great effect in Israel.

“By increasing our client base we will create opportunities for Jewish students to do courses that they would not otherwise have access to,” he said. “Once they are studying with us they will be happy to also take the Jewish Studies courses we can offer them and we will have more people following their heritage.”

ORT India, which has the country’s only kosher bakery, also plans to increase its reach to more observant Jews by expanding its sale (on a non-profit basis) of kosher Shabbat staples: challah, chickens and wine.

For Mr Singer it is an expression of how ORT recognizes the importance of a small, isolated Jewish community like India’s as much as a large one like Argentina’s and said that World ORT would aim to fundraise for ORT India among ex-pats living in the USA, UK and Israel. But while ORT is essential to continuing the bond between India’s Jews their religious heritage and with Israel, all agree that ORT India’s future will be increasingly oriented towards the wider community.

Jonathan Solomon, who chaired ORT India through the 1990s and is now Chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, said: “India plays a major role in world affairs and it’s necessary for ORT to be ready in India to be of any assistance that is required. It’s also important to bring in ORT’s world standards of education into schools here because there’s a need for quality input for modern teaching methods. ORT can definitely contribute a lot to the progress of education in India.”

This should not pose too great a challenge to ORT India which, as broadcaster and journalist Naomi Gryn, whose late father Rabbi Hugo Gryn co-founded the organization with Gerhard Gabriel, noted two years ago, was committed to the Jewish community but open to society as a whole.

Ms Gryn spent a week at ORT India’s women’s hostel in Mumbai in 2009 while researching a documentary on the country’s Jewish community.

She told World ORT at the time: “Thanks to organizations like ORT, India’s Jews feel connected to the rest of world Jewry and at the same time feel like there’s life in their community so they don’t have to leave.”?

She was impressed by ORT India’s work, including its highly respected nursery school, its provision of school computer laboratories and other assistance to southern communities rebuilding from the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and its pre-aliyah vocational training for the “lost tribe”? of Bnei Menashe.

“[My father] would be thrilled to know that ORT has developed to make such an important contribution, not just to Jews in India but to wider Indian society,”? she added.