Barbara Birch recalls the reaction from some friends and colleagues when she shared the news that she would be taking the helm at ORT America. Many were not familiar with the organization; some took guesses as to what ORT stood for. Still others recalled their grandmothers proudly wearing special ORT pins. Those reactions brought home the challenge and opportunity ahead to put ORT back on the radar for Jewish philanthropic engagement.
After decades working in educational and Jewish non-profit institutions, most recently at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Birch was tapped to lead ORT into the future. It was a natural fit as Birch is committed to helping all people have access to excellent education, driven by her Jewish values to provide advancement opportunities for marginalized populations and to strengthening Jewish peoplehood. Here, Birch shares her deeper insights on ORT and her experiences since she joined in 2019.
What does ORT stand for and why is it important?
ORT was founded in 1880 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach Jews essential trades and professions for employment. The letters stand for the Russian words Obschestvo Remeslenovo i Zemledelcheskovo Trouda, which means Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor. For more than 140 years, ORT has offered education programs to communities in need, providing opportunities for advancement. ORT followed migrations of Jews to South America, Israel and more than 30 other countries, and now also serves as a foundational Jewish institution in numerous diaspora Jewish communities around the world.
What attracted you to ORT?
I have always worked for causes that I believe in; it became clear to me early on that the volunteer work I did in high school and college that focused on social action and Tikkun Olam (world repair) was going to become my focus professionally. After years working to support education and Jewish engagement, ORT just pushed all the right buttons. If we can level the playing field for those who might not otherwise have the educational opportunities to get ahead, that’s incredibly compelling. Add to that the fact that ORT’s 40 pluralistic Jewish schools in diaspora communities are a primary source of Jewish engagement for so many families; I couldn’t resist being part of that level of impact. ORT reaches hundreds of thousands of people globally — it’s not a small endeavor.
You started as president and CEO in December 2019. How did you deal with the onset of COVID-19 after only being on the job for a few months?
I saw the value of being a global network with a long history firsthand within the first few weeks of the pandemic. Our response to COVID-19 demonstrated how vital ORT’s role is in supporting schools, educators and families in times of need; you have to be there all the time in to order to be able to respond to a crisis.
Like most organizations, ORT America faced challenges due to the climate of uncertainty that has impacted our donors. We quickly launched a campaign that directed funds to those in the network who required extra assistance and helped all of our providers shift to virtual platforms and made it work.
And I was amazed to see the capabilities of our students who stepped up to help their communities by using their 3D printers to make safety shields for medical workers or design clear masks for lip readers.
How is ORT operating today?
We are slowly returning to in-person events and working at our headquarters. I’ve met virtually with hundreds of ORT supporters, participants and friends over the past year, but if I’ve learned one thing [over] these past few months as I started to travel again, it’s that nothing replaces face-to-face connections.Across the network, there are varying levels of infection that make us realize that it is not business as usual yet. Our innovative educational team is proactively planning for the new school year and continuing teacher training to optimize the classroom experience — whether in person or virtual or a combination of the two.
How can ORT improve the prospects of young people?
ORT appreciates that different regions have different needs, and it customizes services based on that need. For instance, for communities in the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Europe, ORT’s Jewish curriculum helps to deepen connections with Jewish life, while always providing programs of academic excellence. In Israel, World ORT Kadima Mada (Science Journey) focuses on addressing and alleviating poverty by scaling up educational programming, particularly in the STEM subjects, in underserved communities in Israel’s periphery. We also maximize the opportunities of being a global network by sharing best practices, offering professional development, educational content and programs that cross cultural and regional borders.
What makes ORT different from other programs?
ORT is the only global Jewish educational network that provides hundreds of thousands of students with a premier education specializing in 21st-century technology that prepares them for employment and life-long self-sufficiency. ORT impacts more than just classroom education; it also provides students with vital emotional support, private tutoring and a place where they gain confidence in themselves so they can explore all the possibilities for their future. Without ORT, many of these children could not succeed.
We also bring our expertise in education and training to non-Jews. In South Africa, Cuba, Greece and Ghana, ORT’s International Cooperation projects serve thousands of people in need by teaching skills that lead to social mobility and economic security.
Pairing the teaching of practical skills with a framework of global citizenship guided by Jewish values leads to well-rounded individuals who are sensitive to the world around them and eager to make a difference for the Jewish people and mankind.
What does the future of ORT look like?
We are kicking off our fall season with a new campaign called “Face the Future,” a simple yet strong theme that showcases how ORT is transformational, equipping people for the future, while also ensuring Jewish continuity.
On the programming side, we are excited to launch unique educational programs here in the U.S. — courses in Jewish animation and cybersecurity for students and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programs for campers. These programs add educational value and connect students to the larger world through the ORT network.
We are also pleased to welcome 14 future leaders as part of our National Leadership CohORT program, that will bring fresh ideas and initiatives to both our local and national operations.
ORT America’s 100th anniversary year begins in 2022, and as we pay tribute to all those who built the organization, we will look forward to a bright future with confidence.