Avi Ganon is director general and CEO of World ORT, the world’s largest Jewish education NGO which educates 300,000 students in more than 40 countries on five continents. Founded in 1880, its emphasis is on educating students to learn skills that allow them to be successful and live independently. The Jewish Week caught up with him recently and asked about the organization’s new plans to for the first time introduce its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program in New York yeshivas.
Q: You have held the position for over a year. What have been some of your priorities?
A: The vision of the organization has not changed since it was founded — providing skills and knowledge to Jews around the world. We do this in schools — from primary schools up to colleges and post graduate schools — and there is no age limitation. We train people all over the world to be self-sustaining so they can find a suitable job and make a living.
You had previously led the development of World ORT’s operational wing in Israel, an organization that has grown 10-fold in the last 11 years. How many students are there now in ORT’s schools in Israel?
We are working with more than 100,000 students a day, providing education not only in formal educational systems but also through enrichment programs, after-school activities and colleges. In Israel in 2006, there was a dispute with the old organization, and since 2008 we have a new organization — Kadima Mada. It is the official representative of World ORT. The other organization still exists and has a different target. It is called ORT Israel. They don’t overlap.
World ORT’s schools emphasize formal education, science, technology and Jewish identity.
We are also fighting assimilation and the Jewish schools provide the best education to attract Jewish families. Students receive a Jewish identity and they learn science and technology. In some of our schools, there is such competition that we have six applicants for every seat. Our target is to create the best schools. In Kiev, Moscow, Lithuania, Argentina and France we want to create the best schools for world Jewry. The main focus of the organization is in Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Israel. We are doing all of this with the help of the fundraising we are doing in the U.S. through all ORT supporters — and we have a great partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America.
What kind of jobs are ORT graduates getting?
Our programs are tailor-made to each country, providing the answer to the challenges in each country. For example, in Argentina we are training architectural designers. In Israel we are training cyber-security engineers and natural gas engineers. It is a new profession in Israel and we, together with the Ministry of Energy, created one center in the south and one in the north to provide training centers for gas engineering. We created it to answer the challenges of the country. I want to be in a position to bring ORT onto the front stage of education all over the world.
ORT is now being approached by Jewish schools around the world who are seeking ORT’s help in enhancing their curriculum. What is ORT offering them?
A lot of Jewish schools around the world understand that providing Jewish education is not enough. Jewish schools need added value, and that is the curriculum of science and technology in which we have an expertise. They are not offering it in the highest level and that is why they are approaching us and asking for teacher training and curricula and for professional advice in terms of labs, infrastructure and how to bring the latest state-of-the-art labs to their schools. For example, in the last two years we affiliated three schools — in Madrid, Johannesburg, and Colombia. And we have been approached by schools in Geneva and the Netherlands, and by more schools in Bogota and Johannesburg. They want us to help them with our science and technology curriculum because to attract Jewish students to Jewish schools — it is not enough today to just be a Jewish school.
Have you been approached by any schools in the U.S.?
We are now negotiating with some Jewish schools — one in Detroit and one or two in New York. Hopefully we will bring our knowledge to the United States. We believe in a year from now we will be operating in some schools in the United States.
With whom are you negotiating in New York?
It would be our first time in New York and we are working with the Orthodox and some secular schools; we have no political agenda on this issue. And also from the political point of view, we provide education to Muslims and Christians — we are working with everybody.
Since 1960, ORT has worked beyond the sphere of Jewish communities, operating in dozens of countries to train local people in a wide variety of skills, including agriculture, information technology and infrastructure development.
How many non-Jews are you now training?
Today we are training about 1,000 non-Jews in Africa and in Haiti after the earthquake there.
At the same time World ORT works in non-Jewish communities. There has been a substantial increase in traditional anti-Semitism worldwide. How do you explain that?
Jewish communities in which we are working are facing anti-Semitism, and in the former Soviet Union the government is doing its maximum effort to defend the Jewish communities. We have a secure system in our schools to defend ourselves, and we think it is the government’s responsibility to take care of our schools.