Two of ORT’s most passionate supporters have followed up last week’s 130th anniversary Board of Representatives meeting in St Petersburg by leading family and friends on missions to examine how the organisation is preparing young people for the future.
There was a strong personal flavour to the missions led by World ORT President Dr Jean de Gunzburg and the Chairman of World ORT’s Board of Trustees, Mauricio Merikanskas. Dr de Gunzburg and his wife Terry accompanied 20 of his relatives on a specially prepared tour of St Petersburg to see places of relevance to their ancestor, Baron Horace de Gunzburg, who co-founded ORT in the city in 1880, as well as a visit to the award-winning ORT de Gunzburg High School.
Meanwhile, Mr Merikanskas and his wife Helen went with a dozen friends and fellow ORT supporters to view historic Jewish and family sites in Latvia and Lithuania as well as inspiring tours of the ORT schools in Riga and Vilnius.
“ORT made fantastic arrangements to visit some important sites in St Petersburg as well as an examination of my family roots,”? Dr de Gunzburg said. “My family was very touched by it; they were all very happy.”?
It was the banker Evzel Gunzburg who established the family’s connection to St Petersburg in the 19th century and laid the foundations of its philanthropic focus on education. His son, Horace, carried forward this charitable work and was instrumental in gaining the approval of the Russian authorities for ORT’s foundation. When he died, in 1909, Horace was lauded in the Jewish media as “a noble advocate of the people’s needs”?.
While the family continues to be philanthropically minded, it had become apparent to Dr de Gunzburg that many of its members “had no grip on what ORT was and few of them had been to St Petersburg”?. Consequently he invited them to participate in ORT’s 130th anniversary celebrations and the experience appears to have fuelled the family’s return to the organisation.
The mission included visits to museums, palaces, cathedrals, former family residences, the theatre and parks. During the tour of the ORT de Gunzburg High School, mission participants attended workshops exploring ORT’s commitment to and expertise in Jewish, science and technology education, its integration of modern technology in the classroom, the development of ORT Moscow College as an innovation model for Russian education, and ORT’s informal education and training for the Jewish and wider communities.
“”?It was a very well done mixture of fun and work,”? said Jacques Halperin, a cousin of the World ORT President, who has been spearheading the revitalisation of ORT Belgium in recent months as well as contributing significantly to two ORT projects in Moldova and northern Israel.
The St Petersburg celebration and mission provided an opportunity to inspire relatives, who had travelled from as far away as the west coast of the United States, to become supporters of the organisation.
“Now they have seen an ORT school in operation and they see that people in the family are involved heavily, like Jean, and less so, like me, I am sure that some of them will support ORT,”? Mr Halperin said. “The principal question they asked was “ﾘHow extensive is your support ‘ and when they saw my support they thought they would provide a similar level.”?
He said that they were also impressed by ORT’s efficiency.
“I have seen the financials of many charitable organisations and very often their operating expenses amount to 12 to 15 per cent. ORT has always been in the neighbourhood of eight per cent. When you see that more than 90 per cent of your money goes to the project you want to support it.”?
Welcoming the Gunzburg family to St Petersburg, World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said: “As far-sighted and as generous as Baron Horace was, could he have imagined that he was starting an enterprise that was destined to continue for well over 100 years and provide a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world
“Over the next few days you will explore the family story in detail and see for yourselves how Baron de Gunzburg’s vision has withstood the test of time”ﾦ you will also be joining the lay leaders and senior professionals of the modern-day World ORT who have gathered to plan the next phase of the organisation’s activities. You will also visit the ORT school that bears your family name and see a new generation of youngsters benefiting from a 130-year-old dream.”?
There is something of a renaissance in the family’s connection to ORT: in addition to Dr de Gunzburg at the helm and his cousin Jacques in Belgium, another cousin, Marc de Gunzburg, is a member of World ORT’s Investment Committee and Audit and Risk Committee, and another cousin, Vivien de Gunzburg, is also playing an increasing role.
“My grandmother had eight brothers and sisters so the family is large,”? said Mr Halperin. “But usually we meet only for funerals so it was good to have a happy occasion to come together. And I think it was a pleasant revelation to see what our ancestors have created.”?
Family history and a shared vision for the future also characterised Mr Merikanskas’ mission to the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. The Chairman of the World ORT Board of Trustees’ father lived in the pre-war Lithuanian shtetl of Merkine as did the families of Mario and Janine Becker, who, like Mr Merikanskas, now reside in Mexico.
Their exploration of common roots was the culmination of a four-day tour, the first half of which was shared with prominent supporters of British ORT with historic connections to the region. Also on the mission was Clifford Gundle who had travelled from South Africa with his wife. Mr Gundle’s grandfather came from Lithuania and Mr Gundle himself is a committed supporter of the ORT Shalom Aleichem School in Vilnius and the Jewish Community project of the Communication Centre.
The first port of call was Riga’s ORT Dubnov School, whose primary and secondary departments are on separate campuses. It was established in 1989, the first Jewish school in the Former Soviet Union, and inaugurated an ORT Technology Centre in 2002. There they met some of the 31 teachers and 190 students before going to visit the site of the new school building which has been provided by the state.
“The government is spending $100,000 renovating the new building, which will attract more students because it will bring the primary and secondary together in a good location,”? Mr Merikanskas said. “But they need our support, no question about it. Spending time with the principal, Gregory Bikson, we realised that they need more equipment and a senior ICT coordinator. If they get the technical assistance from World ORT I am sure that the community will grow, will increase fundraising for its own needs.”?
The mission visited historic Jewish parts of the city and had dinner with the Head of the Jewish Community, Arkadiy Sukharenko, before leaving for Vilnius.
In the Lithuanian capital they met the Minister of Education, Gentaras Stepanavichus, and discussed the possibility of signing a cooperation agreement between his ministry and World ORT.
“The government is very impressed with the quality of the ORT school. But the school needs double the space it has at present so we requested the Minister to give the school a larger site. He said he would consider our request seriously,”? Mr Merikanskas said.
Through a cooperation agreement, the details of which have yet to be decided, World ORT hopes to broaden its operations in Lithuania to provide teacher training and other services to the general community. Such activities would be facilitated by having a larger building.
The visit to the ORT Shalom Aleichem School was a highpoint of the mission, which also took in historic sites including ORT’s pre-war building in the centre of the city which is currently subject to a restitution claim.
“Shalom Aleichem is a wonderful school and the principal, Misha Yakobas, is excellent. He is very satisfied with the help he has received from World ORT,”? Mr Merikanskas said. “The school has become an example of the way a modern school should be in academic studies, music, art and Jewish education.”?
He concluded: “It’s wonderful to see how much Jewish communities in the region have accomplished after 40 years of Soviet occupation and the wonderful job that the schools are doing in teaching them their heritage. These people have suffered so much and now they are free and flourishing. What ORT is doing in the Baltic States is tremendous; long may we continue.”?
Sylvia Frangi, a member of British Friends of ORT, said the mission “ﾓ her first “ﾓ was very good, an “amazing experience”?.
The trip included visiting the probable site of her grandmother’s and aunt’s murder during the Holocaust.
“It was quite an emotional experience; it really brings you down to earth,”? Ms Frangi said, before going on to stress the importance of teaching Jewish heritage and values to today’s children.
“It’s difficult to do there because the families have lost all their yiddishkeit and it’s the young who are trying to teach it to the older generations. So the young are reintroducing it to the country. I’m very glad I went on the mission; it was lovely to see the children thriving.”?