The Mediterranean sunshine outside Esther Douieb’s office window is a sign of the bright future she is determined to make for the Jewish children of Marseille. Ms Douieb is in her first days as principal at the ORT school which has played an important role in the life of the port’s 80,000-strong Jewish community since its first class in 1947 for divers, most of whom went on to make aliyah and become a core group in the newly established Israeli navy.
The school has long since focused on more mundane subjects and with considerable success “� this year all its students passed the final high school matriculation exams (the Baccalauréat) putting the school well ahead of the national average of 83%.
But it is in the realm of post-Baccalauréat studies that Ms Douieb plans to make the greatest impression in the five years left before her retirement. Over the past 20 years ORT France has steadily introduced an ever wider range of Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) two-year vocational degrees into its schools making it into the Jewish community’s premier provider of further education “� a radical change from its critical role helping North African immigrants acquire the blue collar skills they needed to establish themselves in French society.
“As the labour market has changed, so ORT has changed. Once it was about car mechanics and air conditioning technicians; now, it’s computing, accountancy, optics”ﾦ This is the strength of ORT: it’s not static like education in the state sector,”? she said.
More than 1,000 students “� nearly one-third of ORT France’s enrolment “� now comprises post-Baccalauréat students and, if that was not distinctive enough, it also offers a wide range of Baccalauréat streams through which teenagers can gain a foundation in the kind of knowledge they will need in their later studies. Other Jewish schools restrict their pupils to the classic liberal arts Baccalauréat.
The ORT model is one that has enthused Ms Douieb since she joined the organization in 2000 to become its first woman principal. During her 12 years at the ORT Daniel Mayer High School in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, she oversaw a flowering of post-Baccalauréat courses and wants to replicate that in Marseille.
“At Montreuil we have 300 post-Bac students but at Marseille there are only 120. I want to introduce optics, which has proved very popular at Montreuil and Strasbourg. I think it will also be successful here because to gain such qualifications at other local institutions is expensive,”? she said.
The affordability of BTS courses offered by ORT France is attractive, particularly for students from poorer families, but the BTS in optics appeals also because it qualifies graduates to open up their own business as an optician both in France and abroad.
“All the BTS courses enable graduates to get a good job straight away and can count towards a full university degree but optics appeals to many young members of the Jewish community because it allows them to be their own boss,”? said Ms Douieb.
The success of ORT France’s BTS courses is also due in part to a wider cultural shift in the country’s Jewish community.
“This generation is more religious than in my day and they appreciate that we don’t have classes or exams on Shabbat of Yom Tov. ORT is a secular organisation but at Montreuil students requested to place mezuzot on the doors, which they did with their own money; senior students provide lunchtime shiurim for younger pupils and there are minyanim throughout the day,”? said Ms Douieb.
Doing a BTS at school, with all its attendant support and structure, is also attractive for students who have yet to develop the maturity for university. Some BTS students may never need to leave for university: ORT Strasbourg has a cooperative arrangement with the local university allowing its optics students to extend their BTS by a year to make it a full degree while ORT Lyons now offers a Masters in computing.
By law, enrolment at ORT France schools is open to people of all backgrounds but the organisation’s evolution into further education “ﾓ with BTS courses also offered in international trade, fashion design, banking, electronics, and human resources “ﾓ has made it increasingly attractive to Jewish families and an extensive renovation programme has increased capacity and raised the quality of facilities at its six high schools.
“In 2008 we had 600 post-Bac students and each year we’ve added between 100 and 150,”? said ORT France National Director Marc Timsit. “We expect to have 1,500 BTS students within four years.”?
For Ms Douieb, who delights in having left behind the greyer skies of Paris for the sunshine of the south coast, it seems the blue sky is the limit.
“There are big, marvelous changes taking place “ﾓ I don’t have time to get bored!”?
ORT France’s development of further education courses was an important response to changes in expectations and demands among the country’s Jews, said World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer.
“ORT France’s sensitivity to the needs of Europe’s largest Jewish community translates into increased enrolment and greater material security which would be most welcome at any time let alone now when the Eurozone is in crisis. Kol hakavod to the organisation’s president, Lucien Kalfon, and national director, Marc Timsit, who are providing sterling leadership for a dedicated and skilled staff,”? Mr Singer said.