World ORT – Managing a worldwide educational network during a pandemic


This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday 23 July 2020.

“We never could have imagined the overwhelming impact that COVID-19 has had in each of our countries. In some places it is worse than in others, but it has impacted everyone.”

The current pandemic environment “has made our task in education incredibly more difficult,” says Dr. Conrad Giles, president of World ORT.

Giles, who was recently reappointed to a second four-year term as president of the 140-year-old educational organization, recounts the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on World ORT’s network of 300,000 beneficiaries, who are in over 30 countries and five continents. World ORT, he explains, was better positioned than many other organizations, due to its global reach and technically oriented curriculum, which made it relatively easy to set up distance learning for its students.

Nevertheless, he adds, “We never could have imagined the overwhelming impact that COVID-19 has had in each of our countries. In some places it is worse than in others, but it has impacted everyone.” While students who are less comfortable in group settings flourish in distance-learning situations, most students miss the day-to-day physical interactions with their teachers and classmates. Giles adds that the most significant educational loss that students have felt during the pandemic has been the interruption of hands-on vocational training.

While the economic and health effects of the pandemic have been felt in every country where World ORT operates, Giles says that the pandemic has provided students with the impetus to help out their communities around the world to provide community services to those in need, for example by delivering food to seniors who could not leave their homes and staying in touch with those who would otherwise remain isolated in their homes.

World ORT students have also provided help in practical and real-world ways. A group of students from World ORT’s highly successful after-school robotics program in Dimona created a face mask with a transparent front panel, which makes it easier for people with hearing impairments to read the lips of the person wearing the mask. The mask is transparent in the front and is designed not to fog up from people’s breath. As one of the designers said, “We believe we can change the world, even from home.”

Like many other nonprofit educational organizations today, World ORT is attempting to meet the unique fundraising challenges caused by COVID-19. When classes switched to online settings, the organization approached its supporters to obtain computers for those students who did not have a computer available at home to remain connected.

“One of our challenges was to attempt to provide them with funds,” says Giles. “Happily, we had a successful campaign, but it is impossible to have every youngster equipped, so that is our continuing goal.”

He adds that World ORT must prepare for the continuing presence of COVID-19 for the near future, even after the start of the upcoming school year.

“What is clear to us is that we have to be prepared for this to continue for many months. It is going to require additional resources. The need for a safe environment requires overwhelming care and hygiene; without it, we’ll never be able to continue in-person education, which would be dreadful.”

One of the primary goals of Giles’s next four-year term as president of World ORT is to make certain that the organization has the proper leadership in place to carry on its work. One of the new faces entrusted with carrying on the work of World ORT is Dan Green, director general and CEO. Green, who had been World ORT’s Chief Operating Office since 2016 and served as CEO of ORT UK, became interim chief at the outset of the pandemic and was confirmed as the permanent director general and CEO in June.

“It’s not an easy time for any incoming CEO now,” Green says, speaking from England. “The challenge of leading the organization and managing our response to the coronavirus from my dining room in London (World ORT offices are still closed) is certainly a challenge.”

He is optimistic that World ORT can successfully solve the difficulties caused by the pandemic and adapt to the current realities. He referred to the current period that World ORT is facing as a time of both crisis and opportunity, and is encouraged by the level of communication and interaction between professionals, supporters and beneficiaries. In April, World ORT launched a program entitled “Virtual Volunteers” in which many of the organization’s supporters interacted with students and taught seminars on Zoom on English, entrepreneurship and networking in the job market.

“It was encouraging to see how our supporters have stepped up and given of themselves in this way. I think that this will continue. It touches on how we interact with each other, and it puts our supporters directly in contact with students in a way that perhaps we hadn’t thought of before,” says Green. Another positive development that has come from the Corona crisis is what he terms “the blended learning model” in which classes combine physical on-site learning with supplemental distance learning.

Since becoming director general and CEO, Green has initiated a strategic review of World ORT and its objectives, focusing on three primary goals: the route from education to employment, Jewish values and global citizenship.

“This period in time has given us the opportunity to have a ‘deep think’ as to who we are, what we stand for and how we want to go forward,” he notes.

Green says that the route from education to employment is the same road that the organization has traveled since its inception in Russia 140 years ago – helping students through learning to give them the best preparation for their lives ahead, together with a strong sense of Jewish values.

“Those two things should go hand in hand,” says Green, “and those values in terms of Jewish peoplehood – being part of one nation – should be foundational to all of them, no matter where they come from. ‘Global citizenship’ provides the students with an understanding that they are part of something much bigger and helps them realize that they need to contribute to the pressing issues of the day in their communities.”

Paraphrasing the late Sir Maurice Hatter, the former World ORT president, Green says, “Fundamentally, we are trying to produce mensches. We are trying to turn out people that we are proud of.”

Another challenge for World ORT to meet is the financial and economic implications of this period. It is estimated that a quarter to a third of all Jewish private or community schools in the Diaspora will face increased economic hardships because of the pandemic and some may be forced to close. The most immediate concerns for the network are likely to be in South America and parts of Europe. The number of families receiving tuition fee support at ORT Argentina is expected to reach as high as 75%. In Brazil, the number of applications for scholarships at the ORT school has almost doubled.

With no government support, the finances must be found elsewhere, with a particular focus on an invigorated World ORT-led fundraising campaign. There is a similar picture in Spain, where scholarship requests are expected to double during the summer break, and in Italy, where the extent of the pandemic has hit Jewish family finances particularly hard, again leading to increased requests for support.

Green and Giles are confident that the organization will weather the challenges of today and come out ahead. Their confidence stems primarily from the quality of the teachers and professionals who have kept the organization going around the world.
“The single most important factor in maintaining our educational excellence,” says Giles, “is not the computer, but the professionals who are delivering the product – and our educators have no peer. We’re blessed with a cadre of professionals that is second to none and that is truly a blessing to our children.”

This article was written in cooperation with World ORT.