Much more than a schoolteacher

Prof. Bracha Rager, the new president of Israel's Organization for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT), has big plans for the network's 165 high schools and colleges.

health (photo credit: judy siegel-itzkovitch)
(photo credit: judy siegel-itzkovitch)
Although officially retired, Prof. Bracha Rager has so many hats that without a new "closet" she has to give up some of them for lack of time. The new president of ORT-Israel - the educational network of 165 science and technological intermediate schools, high schools and colleges - is now responsible for the tutelage of one in 10 Israeli high-school pupils. Rager, a world-famous immunovirologist born in Tel Aviv, helped develop the first experimental passive vaccine for West Nile at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but will minimize her research work and supervision of students and leave her part-time post as adviser to the Health Ministry's chief scientist to make more time for ORT. For several years, she herself was the chief scientist, trying to arouse awareness among politicians and the general public of the dangerously small amount of state money invested here in scientific research. "This underfunding is causing a decline in the quality of medicine here, and promotes the 'brain drain' of Israeli scientists," she laments. While officials in the Treasury argue that medical knowhow can be imported from abroad, Rager insists that medical discoveries originating in Israel contribute greatly to the economy as well as to Israeli patients, who are often the first to benefit. "Every country does research into medical conditions unique to the country or different because of unique conditions there," she says. "Other countries cannot do all our medical research for us." She has spent years on the Council for Higher Education, and will remain on the ministry's Supreme Helsinki Committee on Human Medical Experimentation and other ministry committees. When her late husband Yitzhak Rager was mayor of Beersheba, she was in the public eye in the capital of the Negev and had additional duties. She has long headed the judges' panel for the Intel-Israel Young Scientists Competition, which takes place at Jerusalem's Bloomfield Science Museum each March on the anniversary of Albert Einstein's birth. A few years ago, Rager was elected president of the Israel Society of Microbiology and named editor of the science section of the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica . When Rager's two daughters were small, she came home after a particularly long day and was greeted by a drawing on the front door. It was no warm welcome. "We have no mother!" said the lettering, alongside a sketch showing two little girls and their father crying. Inside, she told her daughters - now grown up and with their own careers - that they had no reason to protest, as she herself had had a hard day too. "But you enjoy your work!" they responded, as justification. Yes, Rager enjoys her work even today. She was a member of ORT-Israel's board when it was looking for a replacement for the previous president, Uzi Steinberg. The job was offered to several people, until a member of the board asked: "Why go outside for candidates? Why not Bracha?" So they chose her unanimously. One of her predecessors at ORT-Israel was the late sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog. "As ORT president, you go in the direction you want. Others worked in finances. I focus on academic work. One can't just complain about education; one has to do something. I thought the job would be a challenge." Zvi Peleg, who previously worked in the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, remains director-general. GIVEN THE significant decline in recent decades in the level of education around the country, and Israel's disappointing rankings in international comparisons, something clearly has to be done. But most ORT institutions are islands of excellence, even though many are in development towns and peripheral areas that have traditionally lagged behind the center. World ORT (which stands for Organization for Rehabilitation and Training) was founded in Russia in 1880 to help young Jews in Eastern Europe. ORT-Israel, modelled on the world organization, was founded in Tel Aviv in 1949 to provide simple vocational education for young immigrants from distressed countries. It now has 500,000 graduates. But carpentry has long been dropped from the curriculum, replaced by hi-tech subjects such as robotics, electronics, mechanics, biomedical engineering, computer sciences, dental technology, nano-biotechnology, chemistry, biology and even space aeronautics. As vehicles today are full of computerized equipment, ORT pupils can learn how to repair electronic and other complicated devices in cars. MANY OF the leading professionals in hi-tech, the Israel Defense Forces and others are ORT-Israel graduates, says Rager with a smile in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. ORT schools train more practical engineers than any other school system, and 2,300 each year go on to serve in IDF technology units. ORT pupils and students include secular and Jewish boys, girls, men and women; Arabs; Beduin; and Druse. Some have won prestigious medals in international contests in chemistry, mathematics, cancer research and science and technology inventions. Rager says ORT puts great emphasis on values so its graduates can strengthen the country's social fabric. Every student is encouraged to volunteer. For example, ORT's "Sunflower" Project matches pupils with young cancer patients, who are taught computer skills and receive support that helps them cope with their illness. The ORT pupils and students also tutor elementary, junior and high school pupils - especially new immigrants - in a range of subjects. ORT junior high school pupils meet regularly with the elderly to teach them computer and Internet skills; they are then enabled to write their life stories online and correspond with their grandchildren by e-mail. ORT pupils also document the experiences of Holocaust survivors for posterity. ORT-Israel is also the official publisher of the Hebrew edition of the Israeli edition of Scientific American. RAGER SAYS that ORT doesn't just go into a town or city and establish another school for its network. "We need the initiative and permission from the municipality or local authority. When the state starts a school, the Education Ministry covers 85 percent of the costs, and the local authority or municipality pays the remaining 15%. We have to do the same." The benefits of having a network, she continues, "is that when you have a successful curriculum or program, you can copy it in as many educational institutions in the network as you want. It can have widespread influence." Not only does ORT have institutions that accept special-education children, but it plans to set up a school for gifted learners in Beersheba. "The municipality is very enthusiastic," Rager adds. The BGU professor has already planned innovations for ORT. For starters as president, she intends to upgrade the science curriculum and establish an academic council. "What excites me is the flexibility of the president's job. There isn't even a set term of office. I am the first woman in this job, and I was given a free hand to push, like a tugboat." Looking back at Rager's long career, one can be sure she will do it.