It is easy for those of us living in the West to forget – even in these precarious days – how lucky, how privileged, we are. But a World ORT mission can quickly put things into perspective.
For the participants in last week’s mission to Moldova and Ukraine, it was a chance to meet students, teachers, community leaders, diplomats and politicians, to learn about the challenges they face and the hopes they harbour – and to help.
“Anyone involved in education and philanthropy should experience a mission like this because you see the sheer poverty in which people live and the ability of ORT to bring them out of it,” said London-based World ORT President Emeritus Sir Maurice Hatter, who chaired the mission, which visited Kishinev, the capital of Europe’s poorest country, Moldova, and its not much wealthier neighbour, Ukraine. “We’re very lucky to be living here in the way we do.”
Together with his wife, Lady Hatter, and ORT France President Lucien Kalfon, Nadia Guth Biasini, Lower Galilee Mayor Moti Dotan, and British ORT Trustee Simon Aron, Sir Maurice visited the two ORT schools in Kishinev, and, in Odessa, a new computer centre at the Tikva Orphanage, and the ORT School and Technology Centre. Sir Maurice was struck by the enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge of the children they met, some of them displaying the capacity to rise above the challenges of their current circumstances. One such boy was Dmitry Nemirovsky, an 11-year-old student at the Odessa ORT School whom the mission participants visited at the three-room flat he shares with his grandmother and severely disabled mother.
Like many other poverty-stricken children, Dmitry’s best hours are the ones spent at school where he enjoys a hot, square meal, the company of friends, mental stimulation and comfortable, spacious surroundings. His favourite subject is IT but he cannot pursue his studies at home because his family cannot afford a computer or Internet connection; Sir Maurice spontaneously bought him both.
“Speaking to Dmitry I could see he had the mettle to go on and do well, to lift himself out of the gloom – we’re just giving him the tools so that he can study at home,” Sir Maurice said.
Fellow mission participant, Simon Aron, was similarly pro-active. He decided to share his expertise as Managing Director of the award-winning IT consultancy, Eurodata Systems, with two groups of senior students at the ORT Herzl School in Kishinev, the only Moldovan school chosen by Microsoft for one of its international educational initiatives.
“I felt that we made a good connection: I gave them information about the IT industry and about the need to have a specialised skills set, one which makes them valuable,” Mr Aron said. “And I told them about the international competition in IT. If they have an Internet connection at home then they have no excuses not to learn more – if you have a browser then you can find out anything you want.”
And at Kishinev’s Rambam School, which only joined the ORT network two years ago, it was Mr Aron’s turn to put his hand into his pocket when a student asked why they did not have robotics kits. “I felt compelled to do it. You want to make a difference, you can make a difference, so you do it. And robotics is very good for stimulating young minds into designing, building and inventing; it’s so important.”
It was Mr Aron’s first ORT mission and he returned to England invigorated and equipped to answer the questions levelled at him by potential supporters.
“I’m often asked why these people are so poor, what their Jewish status is and why they don’t move to Israel. Well, now I’ve got the answers to those questions. If I hadn’t gone on this mission I would not have been able to sell ORT: I’ve been a businessman all my life and when you sell something, if you know it back to front then you can do it, but if you don’t know it then you’ll be caught out,” he said.
He said the extent of the poverty in some of the places they had visited rivalled what he had seen in Africa and Central America; in Dmitry Nemirovsky’s home, for example, they bathed, did laundry and cooked in the same room.
“Many of the people we met were living on less than $200 a month so they rely on the mutual support which has developed among them which makes emigrating a very difficult option,” he said. “Education is the only way forward. Yes, those organisations which provide food and clothes are doing an important job but most of these people would find these basic needs themselves. But they wouldn’t stumble across a school with infrastructure and good teachers that would give them a chance in the future. And that’s why I believe in ORT.”
But the mission’s climax was the “breakneck speed” in which a deal is sealed with the Moldovan Government for ORT to move its two schools in Kishinev from their cramped, antiquated and ill-equipped buildings into a massive, centrally located building. The new school will be named after the late father of ORT Moldova President Ilan Shor, who had pledged $160,000 for it, to match Sir Maurice’s donation.
“The Herzel and Rambam schools are in former kindergartens,” Mr Aron said. “They don’t have sports facilities or even a playground; the Rambam school doesn’t have a cafeteria – they eat lunch at their desks. But the new school has a huge gymnasium, foyer, thick walls, large classrooms – and a cafeteria. It’s a proper high school! You go, have loads of conversations, meet all the right people, and come out with a new school. It’s incredible! What a difference!”
Mission members were greeted with ecstatic applause when details of the project, which will see the creation of the largest Jewish day school in the Former Soviet Union next year, became known at a packed meeting of parents.
“The new school – that’s my greatest pleasure to get that going,” said Sir Maurice, who has been on more missions than he cares to remember in the nearly 30 years he has been involved with ORT.
His wife, Lady Hatter, ranked this mission among the top five they had participated in.
“Each one we have come back and thought it was wonderful,” she said. “But we were doing a lot of constructive things – we did what we need to do and came out feeling that we had achieved something. ORT is doing a fantastic job there.”