Seven months after ORT Israel officially split from its parent organization World ORT, discourse between the two groups has taken the tone of a divorce as the sides are embroiled in a territorial dispute and custody battle over the ORT name.
The groups are involved in three separate legal proceedings over which can use the name and where.
In January, ORT Israel filed suit with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office claiming that it should be able to use the ORT name when raising funds in the United States. The organization claimed that ORT, an acronym for Organization for Rehabilitation through Training, has become generic.
In March, ORT America, World ORT’s American fund-raising arm, filed a countersuit in U.S. District Court in New York seeking to stop its former Israeli partner from using the name.
On April 10, Haifa District Court presided over deliberations between the two sides on which is allowed to use the name in Israel.
The court ruled that World ORT could use the name for already-established programs in Israel, but not for any new programs until the sides reach a final agreement.
ORT Israel portrayed the decision as a victory over its former partner.
“ORT Israel requested that the Haifa District Court issue a restraining order against World ORT prohibiting it from using the ORT name in Israel and ensuring that it could only be used by ORT Israel,” the organization said April 12 in a statement.
American ORT shot back with a harshly worded statement that picked apart the ORT Israel statement line by line.
“We have talked to the leadership of World ORT, who are very much committed to keeping to each of the elements they agreed to and keep this process moving forward despite ORT Israel’s highly unfortunate claims to the press and to interested ORT parties around the world,” ORT America Executive Director Hope Kessler said in the statement. “In spite of what seems to be bad fait! h on the part of ORT Israel, we hope the mediation will go forward.”
The statement said World ORT may seek to annul the Haifa decision.
Started in czarist Russia in 1880, the World ORT system operates Jewish-based vocational schools in some 58 countries. Until last September its largest base of operation was in Israel, where ORT Israel was the management company for 162 schools with more than 100,000 students.
But on Sept. 12 ORT Israel seceded from the London-based World ORT, which is comprised of representatives from each of the countries where ORT has schools.
ORT Israel claimed the world body had not maintained its budgetary needs and wanted more transparency about how the world body decided to allocate money to ORT institutions around the world. ORT Israel also questioned the salaries of top World ORT officials, specifically its director-general, Robert Singer.
World ORT, for its part, claimed the Israeli group would not disclose how it was spending its annual budget of $4 million to $5 million.
Since the split, each side has been trying to make inroads on the other’s turf. In an attempt to keep its primary ticket for fund raising, World ORT has scrambled to find programming to latch onto in Israel.
At stake are a potentially huge pool of donor dollars.
While World ORT takes in about $24 million per year, according to American ORT Communications Director Sarina Roffe, much of that fund raising — especially among American donors — is predicated on the idea that some of the money will go to help Israeli causes.
Since September, World ORT has worked with the Israeli government to identify areas of need and has committed some $7.2 million to various projects, including equipping seven schools with upgraded science labs and ORT teacher-training programs.
This comes as ORT America, formed from last year’s merger of Women’s ORT America and American ORT, is making its first large-scale attempt to eng! age majo r donors.
ORT Israel, which uses its budget to leverage some $225 million in Israeli government funding for the schools it services, is on a similar fund-raising blitz.
It has focused on Israel’s emerging philanthropy sector, establishing an Israeli Friends of ORT non-profit group to engage major philanthropists there, Shai Lewinsohn, ORT Israel’s director of foreign relations, told JTA. Friends of ORT Israel had its first gala event last month, Lewinsohn said.
But the Israeli group also is trying to make inroads in the American philanthropic world, where it believed it often was underrepresented when it was part of World ORT, Lewinsohn said.
In February, Lewinsohn and Zvi Peleg, ORT Israel’s director general, traveled to the United States for informational meetings with private foundations and local federations. The group is in the process of setting up a 501(c)3 organization, which would allow American donors to donate to ORT Israel tax-free, Lewinsohn said. Until then it cannot raise funds in the United States.
Even after all the back and forth, a slight chance of reconciliation seems possible. ORT America’s Roffe said part of the mediation in Israel discussed bringing ORT Israel back into the World ORT fold.
Lewinsohn, who was not part of the negotiations, said he had heard no such talk.
“I cannot predict what will happen,” he said. “The mediation process will be with the management, with the board members. It’s about very complicated issues, issues ORT Israel tried to solve for two years but has not succeeded.”