As British ORT prepares to mark its 90th anniversary the growing influence of the organization and of UK-based supporters has been highlighted by two events this month “ﾓ the World ORT Rosner English and Science Summer School in London and the first graduates from training courses at World ORT’s new ICT centre in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
The fast Internet connection, computers, printers and other equipment installed at the Jewish community centre in the heart of Vilnius is making a huge difference to the lives of the 3,500 Jews in what used to be known as the Jerusalem of Europe.
The ICT training provided at the centre gives elderly members of the community new opportunities to overcome isolation and younger members the skills they need to compete successfully in the job market. And it’s thanks to South African-born Clifford Gundle.
“We’re extremely grateful to Clifford for his generosity,” said Simon Gurevich, Executive Director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. “There are many people whose lives are going to change for the better simply through being able to use computers. It seems like a small thing but you should see the eyes of the person who, having learned about the Internet and how to use email, receives a picture of his granddaughter from Israel and prints it out on the colour printer.”
Mr Gurevich joined World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer and World ORT Representative in the CIS and Baltic States David Benish at a ceremony presenting diplomas to the first 40 graduates of two-month courses in basic computing. The graduates were mainly elderly, catching up on the skills which younger generations take for granted. But more advanced training programmes are due to start after the summer break. About 10 per cent of the community is expected to benefit from the classes to be provided over the coming academic year.
“It’s not only about learning computer skills,” Mr Gurevich said. “There’s also the social aspect because during the courses they learn about finding Jewish information. Providing computers and training brings people into the community itself, not just the community centre.”
The sole Jewish school in Vilnius is part of the World ORT network but the ICT centre is the organisation’s first venture into informal adult education in the city.
“We have a lot of experience with this kind of facility in the Former Soviet Union,” said World ORT Chief Programme Officer Vladimir Dribinskiy. “This new one opens opportunities for future cooperation with our similar centres in St Petersburg and other places.”
For Mr Gundle, whose Aurum Fund Management has long been a major sponsor of the British ORT Business Breakfast, the idea of setting up the ICT centre followed a British ORT mission to the country. “I found the tour extremely interesting,” said Mr Gundle who, like many South African Jews, has Litvak roots. He was keen to strengthen what was left of the Jewish community after the Holocaust and decades of Soviet occupation.
“I feel thrilled and delighted that the community has used very productively both the idea and the finances that I provided to establish the computer learning facility,” he said. “The developed world is all technology-based and a thorough training with a good technical understanding through computer training will give the youth of Lithuania the opportunity to compete worldwide and also make a living for themselves and their families.”
Mr Gundle is a classic example of the new wave of activity characterizing British ORT’s resurgence under the three-year-old leadership of Chairman Simon Alberga. In addition to his support for the organisation’s highly successful annual Business Breakfast and individual projects such as the ICT centre, Mr Gundle is funding the employment of its chief fundraiser, Dr Noga Zivan.
Since 2008, the organization has doubled its annual revenue and maintained that higher income despite the harsh economic environment. “Simon has been able to take his predecessor Alan Goldman’s work and take it forward by developing the professional staff and the trustees, to attract new, younger donors and develop a more professional approach to fundraising,” Dr Zivan said.
The achievements of previous generations are not going unrecognized, however. The World ORT Rosner English and Science Summer School is a case in point. Founded in 2001 by Jenny Rosner z”l, who saw the need to improve English language skills among Israeli youth so that they would be better able to pursue scientific and technical careers, the summer school has grown in size and scope. This year, thanks to the British-based Joseph Trust, which is currently the programme’s main financial backer, the 31 teenagers included not only Israelis but students from nine other countries as far away as Argentina.
The focus is still on intensive English-language tutoring but the cultural and sightseeing aspects are now supplemented with science-related learning opportunities. Opening up participation to non-Israelis makes English the common linguistic denominator between the students, encouraging them to practice what they learn in class. And the inclusion of non-Jewish Israelis brings far-reaching benefits.
“In Israel I’ve never met an Arab but now I have Arab friends and I definitely want to keep in contact with them when we’re back in Israel. They’re really nice, amazing people,” said Azerbaijan-born Arzu Ibragimoy. “Coming to London it doesn’t matter if we’re Jewish, Israeli or Italian “ﾓ we’re human beings. We’re here to learn English and make friends.”
One of her new friends is Marwa Yassin, from Shfaram. She said: “It’s been very nice to make Jewish friends here. I love them. In Israel I don’t know any Jewish people but now we all hope to meet up and be friends.”
Their comments would have gladdened Mrs Rosner’s heart. As she said in 2004: “This is a project that gives me much pride and joy. I believe in language because language brings people together; it can pave the way to peace and that’s the thing we most need and pray for.”
Mrs Rosner is an example of what was achieved even before British ORT’s recent surge.
“There were great things happening,” Dr Zivan said. “Currently people are retiring whose energy and commitment have seen British ORT to this point, including women who have carried the organization for decades as members of Friends of ORT “ﾓ some of them as active volunteers for over half-a-century. And late members of Friends of ORT continue to make significant contributions to our mission through legacies. It’s our job to take their hard work forward and make sure it continues into British ORT’s next 90 years.”
Such supporters will be honoured when British ORT marks its 90th anniversary on September 13 with a reception at ORT House, London. Among those present will be members of the Old Boys, the survivors of the ORT Berlin school who were brought to England just days before war broke out. A plaque will be unveiled in memory of Acting Chairman of British ORT Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Henry Levey DSO OBE, z”?l, who brought them out, and the Head of the ORT Berlin School, Dr Warner Simon, zk”?l, who stayed behind and was killed at Auschwitz with his wife and young son; and another honouring British ORT’s many dedicated friends and supporters of the last 90 years.