ORT schools impress journalists


The positive effect of ORT schools on the Jewish communities of the Former Soviet Union has made a big impression on a group of American journalists. World ORT Director General Robert Singer with the journalists at ORT Odessa School. Just how important ORT is to the very existence, let alone the welfare, of some of these communities has been brought home to Walter Ruby, Debra Rubin, Alan Goch and Laura Stampler who are visiting key sites in Ukraine and Moldova this week. Their packed schedule includes visits to the ORT Kiev Lyceum, the ORT Odessa School and the ORT Herzl School in Kishinev as well as meetings with ORT Moldova President Ilan Shor, ORT Ukraine President Professor Iuri Yakimenko, Jewish community leaders and Israeli representatives. For Walter Ruby, who spent the early 1990s as a correspondent in Moscow, what he has seen this week stands in stark contrast to what he remembers of the Jewish experience of living in the region in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. A highlight has been seeing the joy and excitement at the ceremony at the school in Kiev for the new school year, Mr Ruby said. They played the Ukrainian national anthem and then Hatikva. The pride that they have in their Jewishness and in their connection to Israel is very moving. Debra Rubin, Middlesex bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News, noted the story of two teenagers she had met at the Kiev school. To avoid antisemitism, they had been given their mothers surnames because their fathers names sounded very Jewish, she said. But being at the school they took it upon themselves to take on their fathers names. For freelancer Laura Stampler, who reports for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, there was recognition of the central role that school plays in the inculcation of Jewish values and identity. For me, coming from southern California where there are a lot of Jews, you learn about your heritage from your family; here, all the religious background is coming from the schools because Judaism was something that went into the woodwork during the Soviet era. Now, students come home from school and find that their families are for the first time acknowledging their Judaism. Its really moving, Ms Stampler said. Its such a great opportunity that ORT is giving people because if this generation doesnt connect with their Judaism then it will disappear and the Jewish People cant afford that. But Ms Stampler, 21, recognised that an ORT education went way beyond reaffirming Jewish identity. At the Odessa school I noticed that they had a Smart Board in the classroom which is incredibly advanced. I went to a very academically rigorous private school in Los Angeles and we didnt have one! This is not just about teaching Jewish students basic skills; they are very, very advanced, perhaps even in comparison to American schools. I was really impressed by that. Seeing ORT programmes in action had been a revelation, said Ms Rubin. I have known ORT for many years but I had no idea about its extensive Jewish learning. I had no idea about all these vibrant school and institutions here, she said. Explaining that her newspapers editions were affiliated to different Jewish Federations, which to varying extents contribute money towards ORT projects, she added: I think they will be happy with how their money is being spent based on what Ive seen. All of which makes the crisis which is afflicting Heftsiba the more tragic. For more almost 20 years, the Heftsiba programme has provided for Jewish Studies, the bolstering of teachers wages and for security at ORT and other schools. It also provides hot lunches and school buses critical services for schools serving Jewish communities scattered across large urban sprawls and teaching a curriculum that demands long days. Everyone is telling us about the lack of money for transportation and the absence of hot meals and the cuts that they have been forced to make [since the Jewish Agency for Israel withdrew funding last year], Mr Ruby said. I had been aware of the financial issues before I came. But when you see it up close and the effect on real people, and you see how wonderful these schools are, it leaves you with a strong feeling: why doesnt someone stand up and provide the funding