Virtual Volunteer program sparks trip down memory lane for Chicagoan


At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, ORT asked supporters to contribute their time to help students stuck at home under lockdown. It was a request which for one volunteer would also become an uplifting reminder of her father’s own remarkable story with the organization.

Madi Bernhardt was among the first to sign up to be an ORT “Virtual Volunteer”. She and her fellow volunteers supported around 120 ORT students across Europe, the former Soviet Union, Israel and Latin America with online English language conversation practice while their schools were closed.

Madi, who lives in a northwest suburb of Chicago and was active with Women’s American ORT from the 1980s, explained her decision to participate in the World ORT-run program.

“I thought, ‘wow – this is perfect’. I’ve worked for many years as a teacher and ORT has always been close to my heart, and this will give me something to keep me busy and to look forward to during lockdown.”

More used to following a set curriculum teaching reading and math, she turned her hand to conversational English. “Polina, the project coordinator, told me to just be myself and to talk about myself and let the students talk about themselves. I quickly began to enjoy the casual conversations with them.”

Madi Bernhardt

Madi was given a group of 11 students from the ORT Technology School in Moscow. Her weekly hour-long Zoom sessions took place from May until the end of August before restarting at the beginning of the new academic year.

“The kids were so bright, and their level of English was phenomenal.” she said. “At first they were kind-of down because of Covid. They felt isolated and depressed due to the lockdown conditions. So I tried to get them to talk about their families, hobbies, interests, studies and plans for the future. I also tried to give them goals. I think I became like a coach to them in a way.

“I think I became their connection to something different, a world far away from their everyday lives during lockdown. They quickly opened up to me. I really enjoy the program.”

Invaluable assistance

The warmth of Madi’s approach was reflected in the students’ response. “Everybody wanted to talk to her as much as possible,” explained Daria, one of Madi’s students in Moscow. “We were all ready every Thursday at 6pm sharp with Zoom, tea and a hunger for conversation. Madi met us with a hearty smile and a host of topics, discussions, stories. The sessions were invaluable to us. Thanks a lot to Madi and to those who put this program together.”

But Madi is no stranger to ORT and her experience this summer brought to mind many stories from her father’s own connection to ORT, dating back to 1930s Lithuania.

She explained: “My father, Mandel Ganz, attended the ORT school in Kaunas, Lithuania, from 1935 to 1939, when he turned 18. He was born and raised in Seredzius, a Lithuanian shtetl, where he lived until he moved to Kaunas to study at the ORT school when he was 14.”

The school was a newly-built vocational high school and offered academic subjects plus iron/metalwork and machinery.

Reading from her father’s diary, Madi said Mandel (pictured top right wearing cap) was very excited to be going to the ORT school. Kaunas was a big city compared to Seredzius and he was looking forward to living there, making new friends and working with the modern ironworking equipment at the school – at the time it was the newest equipment in the city and years ahead of anything he had seen in the shtetl.

On a visit back to his family in Seredzius in spring 1939, Mandel’s parents told him they had arranged for him and his older brother to migrate to the United States in the summer, after he graduated from ORT. The rest of the family was going to join them later, but in the end his mother didn’t want to leave.

Madi explained: “The story is that they heard Hitler on the radio saying that he was going to invade Poland – but they thought he was a joke. They just didn’t believe it would happen. So they stayed in Lithuania – and they all perished.”

Mandel’s whole family were all killed in the Holocaust except for his older brother, Leib, who joined the Russian army to fight the Germans.

A new start in America

Arriving in New York in the summer of 1939, Mandel eventually settled in Chicago where he had a cousin. Madi recalled. “He was basically on his own in a new country at the age of 18 and he didn’t know what happened to the rest of his family until after the war. He never talked much about his life in Lithuania before the war or the voyage to the US.”

In 1943 Mandel joined the US army, hoping to fight the Nazis, but he was sent to the Pacific front instead. He married in 1947 and moved to Chicago, where, using the skills he learned at his ORT school, Mandel began working in the tool and dye industry and by the late 1950s he opened his own storm door installation business.

Father and daughter: Mandel and Madi

He later worked as the chief engineer for the Northfield, Illinois, school district, supervising their staff and building managers. Madi said Mandel never lost the love of opera he gained in Kaunas – he used to skip school to attend performances – and he would take her and the rest of the family to the opera on a regular basis. After he retired Mandel went back to school and graduated Cum Laude from Northeastern University in Chicago. Madi recalled that he was just two courses short of receiving his master’s degree when he passed away.

In 1981, Mandel had returned to Lithuania and visited the old ORT school building in Kaunas, which was being renovated at the time. He remained a life-long supporter of ORT in Chicago and passed on the tradition to his daughter.

Madi said: “I was involved with Women’s American ORT in the 80s and 90s and I have a lot of fond memories – a lot of good times, good friends and good fundraisers over the years. ORT was always close to my dad’s heart and he passed on that love of ORT to me. I really enjoy the Virtual Volunteers program and I hope to continue participating in similar ORT programs in the future.”