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ORT War Heats Up With New Lawsuits

ORT War Heats Up With New Lawsuits

The friction between ORT Israel and the rest of the worldwide ORT organization has intensified since their split last September, with ORT Israel suing for the right to continue using its name and World ORT opening its own office in Israel, The Jewish Week has learned. “I don’t think we can have any relations,” Zvi Peleg, director general of ORT Israel, said here regarding the break with World ORT.

“The present management, the director general of World ORT, is not helping us and does not understand our needs,” he continued. “In the last year he did not bring anything we asked of him and we don’t have to deal with him.” He declined to elaborate, but Peleg added: “In the last five years, the money that came to ORT Israel has been reduced and we were not allowed to have any connection with the countries that raised money [in our behalf]. They think we operate vocational schools and don’t know the quality of the schools we have.”

Robert Singer, World ORT’s director general, said that although there are “some disagreements” with ORT Israel, “I have no doubt they will be sorted out. We are proud of what ORT Israel is doing. We have supported it for almost 60 years.”

ORT Israel educates nearly 95,000 students in Israel in a network of 162 middle and high schools as well as colleges. ORT Israel students have consistently scored among the highest in achievement tests in the country, and each year more and more municipalities request that ORT Israel take over their middle and high school systems.

ORT Israel was recently asked by a major American high-tech company to take over a high school near one of its plants in Israel so it could train the students in science and technology to prepare them for work in its factory when they graduate, Peleg noted.

World ORT is a network of ORT chapters operating in 56 different countries.

Several efforts have been made to resolve the differences between World ORT and ORT Israel, Singer revealed, including “two or three” meetings the Ministry of Education sought to arrange and two others two former World ORT presidents tried to put together.

“World ORT said OK,” he said. “Every time there was an offer to meet, our New York leadership said they agreed with no conditions. They [ORT Israel] said no.”

Singer said that because Israel is a high priority for World ORT, it recently opened its own office there in order to continue distributing funds to help educate Israeli children. It announced earlier this year that it plans to send nearly $9 million to Israeli public schools in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Education. He said the money would help educate about 35,000 students in 25 at-risk schools.

Although World ORT officials have insisted that the rift came about because ORT Israel refused to provide financial statements that clearly showed donors where their money was going, Peleg said its financial records “are very transparent.”

“We have two big teams of auditors who give financial reports,” he said, adding that Ort Israel’s bookkeeping is satisfactory to a host of foundations and to the Israeli government, which provides it with 95 percent of its $225 million budget.

Peleg, in the United States this week for meetings with universities and foundations to familiarize them with the work of ORT Israel, maintained that his organization’s work is not known here.

“It’s a hidden organization,” he said.

Peleg added that his organization would like to meet with American ORT, saying: “Our door is open.”

Sarina Roffe, director of communications for ORT America, said her organization would be “happy to participate in any conversation with World ORT and ORT Israel.” She said attempts by her organization to bring the other two groups together “have been rebuffed.” And ORT Israel’s suit against American ORT has only served to strain relations.

The suit against American ORT (it is in the process of merging with Women’s American ORT to form ORT America) was filed Jan. 26 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. It argues that the name ORT — an acronym for Organization for Rehabilitation through Training — has become a generic word that denotes a “type of organization rather than designating products and services which originate from a single source.”

The suit noted that on its Web site, American ORT refers to “ORT Israel” and “ORT students in Israel,” thus demonstrating that the ORT designation has not been exclusive. It argued also that “the ORT designation has lost any significance” and that the registered trademark American ORT has had since 2002 should be canceled.

Michael Ray, the lawyer for American ORT, said the suit was filed after American ORT told ORT Israel late last year that it would not be permitted to use the ORT trademark in the United States because it would be an infringement of its trademark. He said the board has told both parties that all testimony in the case must be completed by next February. Ray guessed that a ruling would not come before the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, it was learned that ORT Israel did not trademark the ORT name in Israel and that it is now seeking to get a court order barring World ORT from using the ORT name in Israel. A hearing is expected later this month in Tel Aviv.Because it no longer works with a not-for-profit tax-exempt organization in the United States, Americans giving money to ORT Israel cannot deduct that money on their taxes. To help overcome that problem, ORT Israel last October hired Perry Davis Associates in Manhattan, an international consulting firm that focuses on fund raising.

“You can’t create an organization that is going to make a case for the largest Israeli educational network without there being a sense that the network exists, what its scope is and what its impact is,” Davis said. “Our exploration was to see whether an American entity created here would be successful.”

“My own sense is that the American community — when it understands the scope of the work of ORT Israel and its impact on Israel’s future — is certainly going to rise to the challenge of helping ORT Israel,” he added.

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