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David Benish: Our mission – Helping Jews to become self-sufficient

The head of World ORT representative for CIS, Central Asia, Caucasian States & Baltic States about supporting educational initiatives, about how a regular municipal school gets transformed into a Jewish school, about teachers and students

World ORT was established in 1880 in St.-Petersburg with mission to improve the lives of Jews, providing education and training in practical occupations like handicrafts and agricultural skills. After 135 years of existence the focus of the organization did not change – it’s still education but with accent on high technologies. Nowadays, World ORT is an association of non-profit NGOs working in about 100 countries, offering educational programs to over 200,000 people annually in 20 languages.

The correspondent of JewishNews met with David Benish, the head of World ORT representative for CIS, Central Asia, Caucasian States & Baltic States, in the office of the organization in Kiev for finding out regarding the available educational programs for the Jewish communities in Ukraine.

Since when World ORT operates in Ukraine?

ORT started educational activities in Ukraine in 1991 from various small projects, and in parallel, like in all the countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), was exploring the needs in education for the Jewish communities. In year 2000 a Memorandum of Cooperation was signed between World ORT and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine regarding cooperation in the field of education.

Why was important to sign an agreement with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science?

The main emphasis of the organization in Ukraine is in the sphere of the primary and high-school education with Jewish component. ORT operates in Ukraine four Jewish day schools – in Kiev, Odessa, Zaporozhe and Chernovtsy (in total in the FSU countries operates 17 day schools), all of them are Ukrainian municipal schools. This is a basic principle in our strategy of operation in the countries of the FSU – the cooperation with the governmental establishments brings better results and economically is much more efficient. Besides its own schools, ORT supports many other Jewish schools in the FSU countries.

Are the local authorities cooperative?

The cooperation is very good for all sides. For example, we are now dealing with a renovation of a primary and high-school in Kiev, on Blvd. Davidova 5, in a big building where last year were less than 300 students and the school was planned to be closed soon. We offered to renovate the building and to create an educational complex, where we created fully new infrastructure, sport complex, performance hall, and equipped the educational complex with the most up-to-date technics. The new academic year in September will be opened with 1,000 students.

How a regular municipal school transforms to a Jewish school?

World ORT cooperates with the Israeli Ministry of Education in Heftsiba program that includes development of methodology and contents, and supervises the level of education in the countries of the FSU. In our schools students study Hebrew, Jewish culture and traditions, Geography of Israel and Jewish history, including special course about Holocaust. Within the frames of Heftsiba Israeli teachers are sent to the Jewish schools. The schools also offer rich variety of programs in the sphere of the informal education. In addition, being Israel high-tech country is an excellent model for our schools that are focused on computers, science and technology. In these spheres, our 10th and 11th grades students’ knowledge is equivalent to 2nd and 3rd year students’ knowledge in the Ukrainian universities.

Can you influence on the choice of the schools’ staffs?

Being the schools municipal, the staffs are appointed by the municipal departments of education but taking into account our knowledge and experience the appointments are agreed with us. One of our main priorities is providing the schools with the best possible staffs. After choosing the best teachers we invest a lot in their professional development, by seminars, conferences, trainings and etc. all over the world. Finding talented teachers and training them is an important mission.

Is it essential the teachers to have Jewish roots?

Operating according to the Israeli “law of return” [according to which a Jew, child of a Jew and a grandchild of a Jew have right to immigrate to Israel] to us it’s important that the teachers will be interested in Jewish culture and traditions. It is, of course, not essential if the teacher of mathematics has Jewish roots but we definitely expect the teachers to share and behave according to our values.

How to be accepted in ORT schools? Are there any specific requirements?

The procedure of acceptance is regulated according to the Ukrainian legislation. The uniqueness of the school in Kiev is in its level, and the children are accepted based on their level of knowledge. Children having high marks can be accepted without exams, others will need to pass an exam and based on it will be decided if the child is accepted.

How effective is education in your schools? What percent of your graduates enter universities?

Our graduates compete successfully with others in entering the universities, including in Israel and other countries. Almost 100% of our graduates are accepted to universities. This has a positive side but also negative. I will say something that will sound unpopular but except lawyers, accountants and managing personnel Ukraine, like any other country, needs highly trained technical professionals. Only 20% of the need in technical professionals is covered in Ukraine, and most of them don’t have high level training. For example, good mechanic in Israel will be earning more than a dentist. Modern garage reminds more and more a pharmacy – fully computerized, clean and offers quality service. Our mission is making Jews capable to compete, self-sufficient and economically independent. In choosing one’s career should be taken into consideration that the world is changing.

What kind of educational initiatives are offered for kindergarten age children?

In 2016 we plan to open a Jewish kindergarten in Kiev, Tampere 7a. We will invest 2 Million USD in the renovation and equipping the kindergarten with the state of the art development equipment and technics: Lego, Robotics etc. We stimulate the children from early age to “think big”. Already at the age of four the small person starts to learn the basic principles of complex thinking.

On your international site are mentioned educational projects for adults. Please tell us about them.

Specializing in education we continuously examine additional niches where we can contribute in improving the lives of the members of the Jewish communities. We run Educational programs for adults from age of 18 until 80.

Full list of programs and projects is found on our site thus I will mention just few examples:

Already 15 years since started ORT KesherNet, a joint project of World ORT and Jewish women organization “Kesher”, operating six community centers for vocational training in the cities: Vinitsa, Hmelnitsky, Krivoy Rog, Lutsk, Cherkassy and Makeevka.

GET-IT project, implemented in cooperation with Hewlett-Packard, is oriented in development of entrepreneurship among young adults wishing to create small or medium-size business.

In “Menorah”, the Jewish community house in Dnepropetrovsk, operates computer center where are trained annually over 250 members of the Jewish community.

One of the latest initiated projects is ORT-Hillel training center in Kiev where the members of the Jewish community are trained in computers, study English etc.

Such big variety of projects requires serious funding. How are they funded?

World ORT operations are funded by donations from private donors and funds and organizations. ORT department of Research & Development continuously evaluates the educational needs of the Jewish communities and initiates projects to meet these needs. Then the plan and the budget are created for the project and begins the stage of fundraising for it. Depends on the scope of the project – it even can be funded by private donors and by organizations. For example, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) supports the day schools with social needs, providing meals for needed students and transportation without which Jewish kids living away couldn’t be able to travel to Jewish schools.

Major part of donations comes from the USA, Israel and Western Europe.

Local donors are not interested in supporting the education?

The issue is slightly different. In the western countries giving donations has become part of the local culture. In the countries of the FSU this is completely new experience, and most of the donations go to synagogues. It is not bad but such donations are not sufficient for the effective development of the Jewish communities, and actually, these sums are totaling in amounts that are not big enough. Practically, significant sums arrive to charity when appear small sums donated by many people. Additional time will pass before the tradition of donating will become common among the wider public. Besides, the legislation in the western countries allows tax deduction on donations but unfortunately such legislation still is not in practice in the FSU countries.

To our understanding, supporting the needed with meals and other social needs is very important but in the long run it is important to educate and train people, helping them to become self-sufficient.

What future plans you have?

Our nowadays and future plans are mainly to support young members of the Jewish communities by providing them with modern education and training in the spheres of our expertise in computers and high-tech, and help them to become self-sufficient and independent economically. Our motto is “Educating for Life”.


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