Ort Showcases Students in Effort to Raise Its Profile by Rachel Pomerance

From a podium in front of hundreds of people, Svetlana Dzanashvili recounts her personal journey toward rehabilitation.

As a second-semester high school senior, the young Russian American Jew stopped attending classes and started hanging out with the wrong crowd. She failed to graduate.

But the New York-based Bramson ORT College gave her “a second chance.” First, she earned her G.E.D., and then she got a college degree, which she says enabled her to get “back on track.”

Dzanashvili’s is one of many stories told by former and current students at a gathering early this week of the World Organization for Rehabilitation through Training, better known as World ORT.

And it’s a message that the London-based group, celebrating 125 years, wants to get out to raise its profile — and fund-raising potential — among today’s American Jews.

The organization’s vast network of Jewish schools and colleges, along with nonsectarian humanitarian programs, largely takes place beyond America’s shores.

With a long history, from educating Russian Jews at the turn of the century to training Jews in postwar displaced persons camps, ORT now operates in more than 100 countries, primarily Israel, Argentina and the former Soviet Union.

Underscoring its drive for the attention of American Jews, World ORT held its General Assembly — the group’s quadrennial stocktaking and agenda-setting event — in the United States for the first time.

The May 1-3 conference was held in New York “to make a statement to the American Jewish community,” said Robert Singer, the group’s director-general.

Though the organization was well known among earlier generations of American Jews, Singer said that today “the American Jewish community has a hidden asset that they don’t know about.”

With a network of 272,000 students and a staff of 16,000, ORT bills itself as the largest Jewish educational organization in the world, servicing students mostly from low- to middle-income backgrounds who, in most countries, pay nothing or next to it for an ORT education.

Its focus is on science and technology, preparing students to join the workforce.

In addition, its International Cooperation project, which provides nonsectarian programs to Third World and war- torn areas, earns good grades around the world. One such program in Senegal provides mother-child care assistance and nutrition programs.

With 156 schools in Israel alone, one in every eight Israeli students attends an ORT school, officials say. More than 40 percent of Israel’s hi tech work force was trained at an ORT Israel school, they added.

More than 80 percent, or more than 7,100, of Jewish children in Argentina attend ORT schools. An emergency campaign that raised about $3.75 million kept the program afloat during the country’s economic crisis.

With a program entitled “Regeneration 2000,” ORT returned to its roots, the former Soviet Union, to create 11 schools for some 27,000 students, including adults in after-school computer training programs.

Citing the many sequels to the hit film “Rocky,” Jewish philanthropist Milton Gralla this week announced the launch of Women American ORT’s “Regeneration 2004″ to plan an additional four schools.

“When you have a hit, you don’t put it to sleep. You revitalize it,” Gralla said.

ORT officials say a major reason the organization, which runs on a $340 million budget, is not better known is because of the deal it made in 1947 with the North American federation system, the central fund-raising organization of North American Jewry.

The deal provided ORT with funds through the system’s overseas relief and welfare arm, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Company, precluding it from fund-raising directly.

But the group decided that the $2 million it continued to receive each year from the JDC was not sufficient to support its programs.

So in the last overseas allocation process of the federation system, last July, ORT separated itself from JDC and sought its own share of federation dollars.

The move reaped $3.6 million for ORT over a two-year period — this from a total of an estimated $230 million of overseas funds from the federation system.

While Singer told JTA that his is a “nonpolitical” organization that is “not willing to fight” the JDC and Jewish Agency, he told his General Assembly that ORT’s “fair share” of the dollars is between $40 million and $45 million.

But this isn’t just about money. Singer wants Americans to become involved in or at least familiar with ORT’s work and legacy. Toward that end, the group reopened an office in New York in 2002, for the first time since 1949.

World ORT has continued its American presence through a handful of colleges and two affiliate organizations, American ORT and Women’s American ORT.

The group derives 85 percent of its budget from government contracts around the world, including the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In addition to its emphasis on science and technology, the school tries to instill social values.

Israeli art student Ortal Daniel, 18, said in an interview while attending the conference that ORT “gave us moral values” first, and “then we can be good students.”

Those who attend ORT schools also praise what they call a warm, supportive environment.

One example is Modibi Terens Selowa, 23, whose dark face is practically hidden beneath a cone-shaped straw hat. The non-Jewish Selowa grew up in a rural part of South Africa, where he was raised by a single mother, a domestic worker who provided for four children.

Through the ORT school, Selowa learned computer science and the tools to manage money in a land of deep impoverishment and unemployment.

“I am who I am now because of ORT,” he said.

Indeed, people like Selowa may offer ORT its best chance of educating the public about its mission.

“Educating people, as important as it is, doesn’t grab people’s heartstrings,” World ORT President Richard Goldstone told JTA. “It’s an organization that appeals to the head much more than the heart.”

Still, he said, “the biggest selling point is the number of people who we’re receiving from squalor and poverty, and we’re giving them tools to become productive, successful members of the society in which they live.”

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