'People know we are a safe pair of hands'

World ORT director-general Robert Singer discusses with the 'Post' why his organization has never needed to change its mission statement.

Richard Singer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Richard Singer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
World ORT is arguably the largest Jewish education network in the world. From South America to France to Israel to the former Soviet Union, some of the best schools are under the auspices of the 128-year-old organization. Founded in 1880 in Russia to teach Jews useful trades which were suddenly open to them, the mission has not changed, World ORT director-general Robert Singer told The Jerusalem Post recently. "ORT has succeeded by adapting itself to the changing reality. That's how it has survived 128 years. When I meet with my fellow organization heads, I tell them that I am lucky I don't need to meet every three to four years and rethink my mission statement. "The mission statement hasn't changed in 128 years and there is no need to change it. It is to give people the skills to prosper in their country's economy and live with respect," he said. This year, World ORT will teach more than 200,000 people, mostly Jews but not all, in 58 countries. It runs schools at all levels from elementary to university and strives to provide a good education, both Jewish and secular, to its pupils and students. Singer sat down with the Post during a recent visit to dedicate a "smart classroom" in the Druse village of Hurfeish near the Lebanese border. In office for eight years, Singer took stock of his successes, the ongoing dispute with ORT Israel and his hopes for the future. He has used his personal and professional background to further his goals for World ORT. He was born in Ukraine in 1956. His parents were refuseniks in the latter part of the '60s and made aliya as soon as a crack appeared in the Iron Curtain in 1972. Singer grew up in Karmiel, attended Tel Aviv University and served in the IDF for 11 years. He was recruited out of the army by Nativ, which was then a secret branch of the government which reached out to Jews in the Soviet Union, to go to a book fair in Moscow. He eventually rose to become deputy head of the organization and was slated to become its head when World ORT began its search for a new director-general and Singer applied at the recommendation of a friend. He also served as head of the Prime Minister's Office's delegation to the US in the late '90s. Singer admitted he had never encountered the organization before becoming its head. "I had never encountered ORT in my three years in New York, even though there were three ORT organizations working there at the time. It was like a best kept secret. It was the third leg with the Joint Distribution Committee, which deals with raising money, the Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration, and there was ORT, which deals with education for Jews, perhaps the most important of the three legs. It enables Jews to provide for their families with respect," he told the Post. Singer parlayed his Russian-speaking background and vast experience in Russia to help World ORT return there after a 50-year absence. "Geographically, we've realized the geopolitical shifts in the world and in the Jewish community. We've moved strongly into the FSU. We've realized the need to bring Jewish kids to Jewish education. From 3,400 kids eight years ago, we've grown to 40,000 and even that needs to double. It was something nobody predicted. We are now in charge of all secular Jewish education, as opposed to haredi, in the FSU," he noted. World ORT has made similar inroads in Eastern Europe. "Europe is undergoing a lot of changes right now because of the addition of Eastern European countries, and from internal migration," Singer said. "We've entered into Jewish schools along with Ronald Lauder's foundation in Prague, Warsaw and Hungary and suddenly the system in Europe is going. We just renovated our schools in France. Twenty-five percent of Jewish children learn in ORT schools." SINGER EXPLAINED what he sees as the key to World ORT's success. "It's a huge, spread-out organization, which exists in every community. What differentiates it is that it has a philosophy which is the same across every country but it is implemented totally differently in each place. For example, in Uruguay we have one of the best universities in the world in Montevideo which today goes up through PhD programs. In Namibia we offer courses to those who survived HIV/AIDS or are orphans; in Russia and in Israel it is hi-tech; in Argentina it is architecture. In that respect, World ORT is similar to the UN: global policy and local actions. ORT fits itself to every situation. Wherever there is a Jewish community, there is ORT." He was modest about assessing his achievements over the last eight years. "It is very hard to judge achievements in an organization of this sort in the short term. If there are achievements, and I think there are, then we will only be able to evaluate them in another 10 years. The director-general after me or the one after him might be able to judge more aptly. You enter into projects which take a long time. ORT recently began a joint "smart classroom" project in Israel with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, providing smart screens to classrooms. "There is a lot of excitement, sort of like when computers came out. [But] the real results of this project we won't know for a number of years. It has been running the longest in England, seven or eight years, and they are only now trying to assess initial results," he said. The organization has gone through a tremendous bureaucratic overhaul in the past eight years as well, he said. Singer credited two past presidents, both former judges, for pulling the organization into the international limelight, building its statutory clauses and its constitution. The current president, Sir Maurice Hatter, has made transparency, visibility and accountability his banner goals. "It has changed how we raise money. It is designated. Donors receive reports and can see where every dollar went," Singer said. Aside from its direct influence on the young through the schools, World ORT has achieved a unique status in Europe and South America almost as official consultants to governments and education departments. In response to a query about the possibility of fighting anti-Semitism in Europe, Singer suggested several practical ways World ORT could use its not inconsiderable influence. "We do see rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Children in Europe have to find a safe way to get to school. Our ability to influence is very great, but not an immediate one. "We sit in a number of forums, at the UN, UNESCO in France, the International Labor Organization and the International Migrants Organization. First of all, we can create a network of like-thinking individuals. In the last forum in Strassbourg, there were NGOs from all over Europe and we built up an infrastructure which we are still in touch with," he said. Singer said they'd also developed two programs to teach the Holocaust. One, a Web site with the Ghetto Fighters organization, is the most visited Holocaust Web site as ranked by Google, Singer said. The other project focuses on music created in the ghettos. "We work very closely with governments and especially education departments," he continued. "We are often official consultants. In Chile, there isn't an educational program without ORT input. "People know we are a safe pair of hands. Our goal is to build good Jewish schools. ORT schools are among the best or the best in the country. In our school on the Volga River, government officials fight to get their kids accepted. When you tell them that there are eight to 10 extra hours of Israel and Judaism and ask them if they still want to send their kids, they say, 'Great, so let them learn about Judaism,'" he said. RECENTLY, WORLD ORT has started programs for non-Jews, particularly in Africa. For Singer, this was a natural progression of the organization's philosophy and beneficial for Jewish communities to boot. "I am going to give a presentation at the European Parliament. We sit in the NGO layer of the parliament, one of the few Jewish organizations that does. The topic is religious education as a tool for developing tolerance. "The world sees the Jewish people through the prism of organizations like ORT. They see that the Jews take care of their own and also promote tikkun olam," he said. Practically, it helps local Jewish communities a lot that we have such programs, he said. It helps them in their relations with their neighbors. He was also quick to stress that all of the programs except for the ones that began as tsunami relief were not funded by their Jewish donors. Regarding assistance to Arabs and Druse in Israel, Singer stressed that that was a different case altogether. "In Israel, we see the non-Jews as residents of Israel. We do not differentiate. Our first project was in Kadoorie [the agricultural school in Galilee] - where there are Jews, Muslims, Christians and even Sudanese. ORT was never political or sectorial - we work alongside Chabad and alongside Reform and any others in the world," he said. It's even been offered the opportunity to build programs in Muslim countries. "USAID wanted us to go into Iraq and Afghanistan and we didn't because we couldn't guarantee our people's safety," he said. Singer also touched briefly on the conflict with ORT Israel. A year and a half ago, ORT Israel abruptly announced it was severing ties with the umbrella organization. Since then, the two organizations have met in court to determine the rights to use the ORT name. ORT Israel has been given the right to operate schools here, while World ORT can establish programs but not new schools. "Looking back over a year and a half, Israel has enjoyed two great ORT systems. And both are excellent. It's a win-win situation," he said diplomatically. Autonomy isn't really the issue, according to Singer. World ORT establishes national organizations and then after a few years they are supposed to spin off into autonomous organizations, he said. ORT Israel was established in 1947 and became autonomous in 1949. Singer is optimistic though that the break is temporary. "I have no doubt that the systems will reunite eventually. I can't tell you exactly when - whether it will take months or years - but we don't really spend that much time dealing with it. "Most of the donations we get are for Israel. From the perspective of the student, if there are an additional 40,000 who get an ORT education, then it's clear profit," he concluded. Singer's future goals are much the same as his current ones - to provide meaningful Jewish education to hundreds of thousands around the world. "We live in a changing world at a pace which no one predicted. Technologically, economically, geopolitically. People need to adapt themselves to the changes to preserve their status. I don't know of any other way to do it than through education. Adaptation and professional mobility is now very important. Thirty years ago, professionals were permanent. The average for staying in the same position is now two and a half years. "We need to give students a skill set so they can adapt. We've given up administering schools in favor of focusing on science programs and languages, especially English," he explained. Singer sees a continuing role for ORT especially in the Diaspora. "Jewish continuity is critical in the Diaspora. Assimilation rates are very high. People have much less time now and all the standard methods are insufficient. We need to continue establishing good Jewish schools. We need to bring pupils back from non-Jewish schools into Jewish ones," he said. Singer made a point of concluding the interview with a nod to ORT's "army" of donors. "We have 250,000 shareholders. Every woman in Florida who gives $36 feels like she has the right to tell me how to run things. What I say is: These are the people who care, who want to be involved. We are one of the few organizations which have such an army of people who care. "We also don't have a problem of young leadership. Everyone is on a trip about how to recruit young leaders. Our next president - I hope he will be elected in two months - is 52. He is a world-renowned scientist and scion of two respected families. At least half our Board of Trustees is in their 50s," he said. At a young 52 himself, Singer seems poised to further ORT and build on its achievements for a good long while yet.