Special Interview Haber Steps Down As Ort’s President; Optimistic About Future Growth
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Special Interview Haber Steps Down As Ort’s President; Optimistic About Future Growth

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Dr. William Haber is 81 years old and has been president of the World ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training) Union for 25 years, and was president of American ORT for 30. One might have expected, therefore, a measure of conservatism on the part of this grand old man of Jewish public life.

But not a bit of it. Haber, an economist of distinction who once headed the department of economics of the University of Michigan, is sprightly and forward looking in his approach to life in general and to ORT in particular. He is immensely proud of the revolutionary changes that ORT has undergone during this past quarter century under his stewardship and eagerly anticipates an even bolder and speedier evolution in the years ahead.

Haber stepped down as world chairman at ORT’s recent 100th Anniversary Conference in Jerusalem. His place was taken by former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Chaim Herzog, who is now in private law practice and is also nursing a burgeoning career as a Labor Party politician with ministerial ambitions.


It is fitting enough that an Israeli take over the ORT top lay spot in view of the fact that two thirds of the organization’s vocational school projects now operate in Israel. Out of some 100,000 young persons receiving ORT vocational training, more than 60,000 are Israelis.

Under Haber, ORT all but phased out its once widespread network in North Africa, as the Jewish communities there made their way to Israel France and North America.

After Israel, ORT’s second most important area of operations today is France. But the most rapidly growing, says Haber, is South America. By the turn of the century ORT hopes and plans to double its numbers; to have 200,000 students under its wings.

But the changes under Haber have not been merely in numbers or in geographical dispersal but mainly in terms of what educational opportunities ORT offers. Gone are the days when ORT schools trained young Jews — and a great many older Jews, refugees and unemployed persons — in the traditional Jewish skills of tailoring, cabinet-making or diamond polishing.

Today, says Haber, the focus is on computers, automation, avionics, electronics. And ORT’s planners keep their ears and eyes carefully tuned to employment and market trends in the various countries in which the organization operates.

“We were doing badly in Buenos Aires,” Haber recalls, “until we opened a computer school — and overnight we were choked with applicants….”


ORT today, moreover, both in Israel and abroad, is not rigidly devoted to turning out craftsmen and technicians. If a student is seen to have aptitude, he is encouraged to pursue an academic career and is prepared for it as well as in any high school.

ORT in the U.S. was traditionally a matter of raising funds rather than spending them. The federal government, after all, Haber notes, offers an excellent vocational training program of its own. “But our people — particularly our Women’s American ORT with its 150,000 membership — wanted to see action.” They wanted to see close to home an example of how ORT’s money is spent around the world.

Haber does not hide his own reservations about developing an American program. But, he concedes, the organization bowed to the natural and understandable desires of the membership, and is now planning a number of schools across the U.S.

For many years, there has been one ORT school in New York, mainly intended for new immigrants seeking a new trade or vocation to begin life in the U.S. Recently, another New York school was opened, the Branson School. It was intended to serve the indigenous Jewish community, but, with the rise in the flow of Soviet Jewish immigrants, it caters now to a majority of Russian newcomers.


Explaining ORT’s budget breakdown, Haber stressed that the governments of countries where ORT operates, as well as other Western governments interested in overseas aid, contribute significantly to ORT’s outlay, thereby more than doubling the funds the organization raises through its own campaigns and the United Jewish Appeal campaign through the joint Distribution Committee allotment.

Apart from its vocational training work among mainly Jewish youth in many countries, ORT is also engaged in technical assistance programs in a number of Third World countries. These projects are funded by international organization or by state governments, not by the U JA campaign.

At this time, such projects are in operation in Burma, Burundi, Cameroun, Chad, Guinea, Malagasy (Madagascar), Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Turkey, Upper Volta and Zaire. They include setting up vocational training programs in which ORT draws on its accumulated experience which is recognized by intergovernmental and other bodies (World Bank, UN agencies, Asian Bank, U.S. Aid Program, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden) as virtually unparalleled.

This international assistance effort gives ORT “great benefits experience wise,” says Haber. The organization’s Israel connection has never been on issue. On the contrary, the outgoing present hints, the ORT connection with African and other countries sometimes provides “excellent windows for Israel to look in at this time when diplomatic relations are severed.”

While Haber has handed over the day-to-day leadership of the organization, he intends to remain active and involved as a member of the ORT board for many years to come.

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