Recently my wife, Lynda, and I were privileged to participate in a World ORT mission to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. This opportunity to experience the work of this wonderful organization and its valuable educational network was as energizing as it was concerning in regards to the sustainability of Jewish life in Russia.
Through a network of 17 schools in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the Baltic states, World ORT provides a highly efficient and sophisticated general Judaic and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to more than 8,500 youngsters.
While the vast majority of these students (75 percent to 80 percent) are Jewish, the quality of this educational opportunity, with its large Judaic component, attracts non-Jews, as well. Funding for the basic curriculum and its teachers are provided by the Russian state. World ORT’s contribution relates to the Judaic studies curriculum, those instructors and the important STEM component.
While all of this is inspiring and validating for the 20 percent of Jewish families who receive this education, we need to be concerned about those who are absent. So much is at stake as we attempt to “save the world.”
The challenge we face is not only funding these 17 schools for $9.2 million over the next four years but to a wider task of engaging the 1 million Jews remaining in this region.
Beginning in 1990, many of us contributed to the huge exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union and for Aliyah to Israel. While we joyfully participated in this process, our attention turned away from those Jews remaining in the FSU.
Outreach by religious and noneducational institutions to this population have been largely unsuccessful. It is clear, however, that education is the magnet to attract and educate these youngsters while serving as the best possible mechanism to engage their families. World ORT’s success is evident.
My primary concern: We have a time-limited challenge. We cannot miss this opportunity to educate a generation of Jewish youngsters. If we fail them, we have turned our backs on the possibility of creating a vibrant Jewish life in the FSU.
World ORT’s primary funding from the United States comes from three sources. The largest contribution comes from the federation system’s overseas allocation through the Jewish Federations of North America. The second source of support comes from dollars provided by individual federated communities for designated projects. Finally, individuals can provide designated or undesignated funds contributing to ORT America. All of these streams are necessary for us to achieve our stated goal.
Conrad L. Giles, M.D., is the president of World ORT.