ORT has returned to its Russian birthplace. In May, the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training inaugurated its technical education program within St. Petersburg’s International School of General Education.
Part of the local school system, the 300-student institution has a Hebrew department that provides Jewish education under the sponsorship of the Israeli government.
The new ORT program, which first opened its doors last September, teaches computer usage, secretarial skills, desktop publishing and computer-assisted design.
Providing a high-tech touch to the inauguration, Vladimir Dribinsky, a teacher of engineering and director of ORT St. Petersburg, transmitted a live report on the proceedings over the Internet to interested onlookers in England, Israel, Switzerland and New York.
Participants at the opening ceremony included Israeli Deputy Education Minister Micha Goldman and Russian Education Minister Eugeniy Tkachenko.
Tkachenko noted with approval that the students were studying Hebrew and English, according to Howard Cohen, executive vice president of American ORT, who attended the ceremony.
From its inception more than 100 years ago, ORT positioned itself as a group that was good for the Jews — and good for Russia.
In 1880, a group of wealthy Jews took the occasion of Czar Alexander II’s 25th anniversary on the throne as an opportunity to form a Provisional Committee for the Establishment of a Society of Handicrafts and Agricultural Work for the Jews of Russia. The group became known by its Russian acronym, ORT.
The czar’s death soon after led to an upsurge of anti-Semitic policies that prevented ORT from functioning for its first 15 years. However, its focus on helping Jews to be productive workers meant that ORT was able to continue operating in Russia for two decades after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1938, Stalin’s purges led ORT to close its operations in the Soviet Union.
ORT resumed operating in Moscow in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.
What once was an idea designed to appeal to a czar and assist the Jews of Russia is now part of a global network of vocational training. The format of the St. Petersburg program — a computer facility within a Jewish school — is modeled after ORT programs in day schools in Atlanta and Miami.
For ORT officials, returning to St. Petersburg held special significance.
“It’s a spit in face of history,” said Cohen.
Also helping to facilitate the return of ORT to St. Petersburg are descendants of Baron Horace de Gunzburg, a founder and first president of ORT. They are major contributors to the new school.
American ORT, like its sister organization Women’s American ORT, primarily raises money for the school run under the auspices of the World ORT Union around the world.
At the St. Petersburg ceremony, David Hermelin, president of the umbrella World ORT Union, spoke about the “great importance of communications between people, between countries, between generations,” according to Dribinsky’s report over the Internet.
And at least one student interviewed over the Internet immediately after the ceremony agreed.
After allowing that “it’s not so simple to speak English,” Stas, a 17-year-old student at the St. Petersburg ORT center, was asked through a translator what his hope was for his future.
“I want to be a translator or journalist,” replied Stas in English. “I hope ORT help me.”
And he added: “I hope Stas help to ORT.”