ORT UK - 96 Years and Counting

British ORT was established in 1921, the first member of the World ORT Union established in Berlin the same year. From its earliest days British ORT was dedicated to supporting ORT's operational projects in Russia and, as the network expanded, elsewhere in the Jewish world.

1920s - The Beginning

British ORT was established in 1921 by Russian Émigrés fleeing the Socialist Revolution in Russia. As the lucky ones, they aimed to continue their support for their brethren left in Russia by fund-raising on behalf of ORT, which was, by this point, a well-established provider of vocational and skills education to poor communities in what became the Soviet Union. British ORT was the first such fundraising body to be established, and would be followed in time by ORT organisation South America, in France and in the United States. 

1930s - Einstein and the Leeds ORT boys

By 1930, British ORT was sufficiently well-established to draw big names and even bigger speakers to its fundraising events, including its annual dinner. In October 28 1930, George Bernard Shaw, himself a writer of considerable fame, introduced Albert Einstein as the main speaker at British ORT’s annual dinner, hosted by Lord Rothschild   and held at the Savoy Hotel in London. Einstein, ‘maker of universes’ as Shaw introduced him, speaking in German, used the address to unveil a new theory, on which he had been working, the theory of relativity.

With conditions worsening in Europe following the rise of the Nazis, British ORT diversified its work from purely fund-raising to a more active role.  In 1937, ORT opened a school in Berlin, under the leadership of Dr. Werner Simon. Permission was given by the Nazi authorities for the school to open on the basis that it would train only Jews who were planning to emigrate. From the start, British ORT cooperated closely with ORT Berlin to secure the school’s future. Aware of the increasingly precarious situation of the Jews in Germany, it was decided that all machinery and tools bought for the school would be purchased under the name of British ORT, so that to confiscate them would be to seize the goods of a foreign country, in itself a declaration of war. The tactic worked. Under the protection of British ORT, the school survived Kristalnacht and the November 1938 pogrom, remaining the only institution unaffected by the spiralling trouble and taking in students deprived of employment in their traditional sectors and young people denied an education elsewhere. By July 1938, 215 students were studying at the school. With the situation deteriorating, Dr. Simon and Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Levey, his British counterpart, began to explore the options for relocating the school to the UK. The British Ministry for Labour and the Home Office agreed to relocate the school to Leeds, on the condition that it brought all its (British-owned) equipment with it. At the final minute, however, permission to remove the equipment was denied by the Nazis. Colonel Levy moved heaven and earth to secure the permits for the boys to leave anyway, and, on 29 August 1939, 104 boys, seven teachers and their spouses left Charlottesburg Station in Berlin. Warner Simon remained behind, aiming to travel out with the second group of students, who were due to leave on 3 September 1939. On 1 September 1939 war was declared.

The second group of students never made it out of Berlin. On 23 October 1944 Dr. Werner Simon and his wife were transported to Auschwitz and killed. After a number of months in a Kitchener Camp in Southern England, the Leeds ORT Boys, as they became known, moved up to the newly opened school in Leeds. Here, they continued the training that had been disrupted in Berlin. The school taught locksmithery, blacksmithery, plumbing, electronics, mechanics and welding. The school ran to strict schedules and Colonel Levey, who continued to play a prominent role and visited frequently, imposed a military discipline on the students. Eager that the school should not attract adverse local attention, the boys were forbidden from speaking German in the streets ‘or at all, if possible.’ On completion of their training, many were interned as enemy aliens, but others went on to serve in the British armed forces, and fought with them in the later stages of the war. On 18 July 2010, British ORT brought together the eight remaining Leeds Old Boys and their families for a special anniversary reunion marking the 70th anniversary of the opening of the ORT Leeds School.

1940s - The Training of Holocaust Survivors

With ORT playing a leading role in training thousands of holocaust survivors in Displaced Persons camps following the war, British ORT’s fundraising activities took on a new importance in the late 1940s. The organisation also maintained a training programme for young refugees who had come to the UK. In 1946, a subsidiary of British ORT, the Jewish Marine League, bought HMS Cutty Sark from the Royal Navy to use as a training ship. Renamed the T.S. Joseph Hertz, after the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and moored off Grays, Essex, she had accommodation for 60 boys and taught skills useful to Merchant Seamanship. 21 boys—17 of whom were survivors of Bergen-Belzen Concentration Camp, made up the ship’s first intake. Here they were trained in a range of nautical skills including semaphore and knotting, before being placed in suitable occupations.  Eventually, difficulties in finding new trainees and in placing non-British boys on merchant ships caused British ORT to discontinue the Marine Training Scheme. Commander N. F. Israel, D.S.C. relinquished his post as Captain, and Commander Stratton, R.N.R., took over the Command. He succeeded in placing all the students in trades where their preliminary training could be of use. The scheme closed down on October 10th, 1947, and the T.S. Joseph Hertz broken up the following year.  

Alongside its maritime work, British ORT established a new ORT training centre on Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, where courses in dressmaking and design were held for camp survivors lodged in London hostels. The Kensington School trained some 200 young people, mainly survivors of Bergen-Belzen. The school later moved to Belsize Lane, Hampstead, and eventually closed.  In cooperation with the Hechalutz movement, British ORT established a training farm for holocaust survivors aiming to make alyia in Goldington, Bury, Bedfordshire, in 1947. The organisation also supplied equipment and instructors to the World ORT Union's work among Displaced Persons remaining in DP Camps in the British Zone of Germany, and in British-Mandate Palestine. Lady Rose Henriques, a leading member of British ORT and later the Women's Division of British ORT, visited the camps and actively participated in ORT's efforts on behalf of their inmates. 1950s - The founding of the women's division and British ORT's first professional director    

The Women's Division of ORT, later renamed the Friends of ORT, was founded in 1954. It aimed to raise funds to support ORT projects through holding events aimed specifically at ladies. Annette Herson, almost the only surviving member of the original committee, recalled that, in the early days all the events were catered by the ladies themselves. The entertainment was often also home made ... including using knitting needles to roll up the tombola tickets in a cold garage. Cecily Zimmerman spoke about ORT to many organisations. She approached Claire Connick and Judith Mishon in the early 1960s to start a group in South West London, the Roehampton Group, as it became known, held coffee mornings, ‘celebrity lunches’, One of which hosted ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre, and an annual garden party. Eventually, 11 – 15 women's groups existed, one in almost every borough of London. They arranged events on an almost monthly basis, and raised substantial sums of money to support ORT's activities. Among the most notable events hosted by the Women's Division was a 1985 'Women of our Time' lunch at the Mansion House, where the guest speaker was Jeffrey Archer and Lynda Chalker the Guest of Honour, and a 1987 lunch where the Guest of Honour was the Duchess of Gloucester and the Guest Speaker was Brenda Dean. Also in 1987, with the help of Lord Young, the third Women of our Time luncheon was held at Lancaster House. The Guest of Honour was the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and speakers included Maureen Lipman, Libby Purvis, Janet Susman and Nicole Davoud. The Committee’s members at the time were Lita Young, Rosa Lipworth, & Carole Glickman. In October 1992, the Women's Division held an 80th birthday dinner of Sir Georg Solti at No.10 Downing Street, which was attended by Placido Domingo and Kiri te Kanawa.   In 1956 British ORT appointed its first professional Director, Hilary Goldberg. Hilary worked for ORT for over 10 years, spearheading an effort to enlarge ORT's constituency through groups representing the professions and various special interests.

1960s - Michael Naughton joins British ORT

In 1961, quite by chance, Michael Naughton met with one of the Directors of ORT and was inspired to visit the organisation's operations in France, Switzerland and Israel. Shortly afterwards, joined British ORT and became its Treasurer. In 1986, after holding a large number of significant roles in the organisation, Michael Naughton became Chairman of the World ORT Fund-raising Committee. That same year, he was presented with the ORT Congressional Award of Honour at the Knesset in Jerusalem for his exceptional contribution to furthering ORT’s work. He went on to Chair British ORT's highly successful Business Breakfast for many years, building it up into the organisation's second biggest annual fund-raising function.

1970s - Lord Young and All sORTs

Lord David Young took over the Chairmanship of British ORT from Gabriel Sacher in 1975. In 1980, he gained a position within the Thatcher government, bringing ORT's ideas regarding skills and technical education into the heart of policy discussions. Lord Young's involvement with ORT and the Thatcher government allowed the development of a two-branch British education system, with vocational and academic study tracks existing side by side, and providing options for young people who would otherwise not have completed their education. 

"British ORT has long encouraged the next generation to develop leadership and promote new initiatives within ORT” (Mark Mishon, Former Chairman, AllsORTs). It was with this in mind that British ORT launched, in 1975, its young leaders group, AllsORTs. The group, mainly composed of the sons and daughters of existing activists, had two committees, one in Sheffield, chaired by Tony Kay, and one in London. An early victory in the Agrexco Watermelon Spitting Contest gave the group a public profile. AllsORTs arranged programmes of lectures, parties, concerts and missions. Eye catching sponsorship events included Climbing Everest in the Mall and Cycling a 6 Seater Bike around Regents Park.

1980s - The British ORT Trust

The legacy of Lord Young's Chairmanship and the economic turbulence in the United Kingdom ensured that, in the early 1980s, British ORT was more UK-focused than it had ever been. From 1984 to 1989, the British ORT Chairman, Ivor Connick, alongside its Director, Morton Creeger z"l, worked to change this, and re-focus the organisation. The British ORT Trust was established as a separate body within British ORT to manage the organisation's UK-based initiatives. Among its most successful projects was the ORT Bus, which, fitted up with laboratory equipment, toured British schools allowing young people to experience an experimental model of science and technology education.

1990s - Navigating the Bible and ORT for Thought

In 1995, Mark Mishon took over as Chairman of British ORT. Under his chairmanship, British ORT became involved in the Navigating the Bible project to record the entire five Books of Moses onto a searchable, and internet-accessible, Bar-Mitzvah tutoring programme. The programme's main sponsor, Sir Maurice Hatter, was a long-time supporter of ORT and President of World ORT. It was his faith in the programme which allowed it to come to fruition.   Between 1990 and 1996, Debby Klein, Yvonne Crampin, Carolyn Mishon and Jackie Lawson ran a committee for ORT known as ORT for Thought. It raised money and presented a bus to transport students to and from the Schools for ORT India and held various fund-raising events such as a family day at the King Alfred School.  

2009 – Current Chairman, Simon Alberga begins his tenure.

2009-2012 – money raised at the ORT UK Gala Dinner in 2009 has contributed to building a rocket proof science and technology centre in the Shaar HaNegev high school which lies just 2km from the border with Gaza. The new centre was officially unveiled in June 2012  

2010 – ORT JUMP, the Mentoring Programme

Launched by ORT UK and Julia Alberga. In its first year 30 students from two Jewish secondary schools were matched with mentors who help guide them through the pitfalls of career choice and university applications. Today we are helping over 300 students from all eight mainstream Jewish secondary schools who are looking for insight and help to put them on the career path. March 2014 – British ORT has now been rebranded as ORT UK with the new and purposeful strapline of “Changing Lives Through Education”. The change represents a fresher and more relevant image for the organisation whilst retaining the same values as it has always done for over 130 years.

2014 – ORT UK

In March 2014 British ORT re-branded as ORT UK with the new strapline of "Changing Lives Through Education".

2016 – Professional Women's Networking (PWN)

The PWN was created to provide an opportunity for professional Jewish women in the city (and beyond), who have been integral in that journey, to hear inspirational stories from other Jewish women who have beuilt successful careers. They share experiences of climbing the ladder and breaking the glass ceiling, while juggling their personal and professional lives. It also provides a forum for networking with other professional Jewish women and facilitates the development of mentoring opportunities.

2016 – Bar/Batmitzvah Twinning

The ORT UK Bar/Bat Mitzvah twinning programme was set up to connect Jewish children in the UK with their counterparts in our partner countries in the former Soviet Union. As they embark on their Bar/Bat Mitzvah journey, the children learn about their family roots & history, Jewish migration, as well as taking part in  other sessions such as genealogy, cookery and fundraising projects. During the programme particiapnts have an opportunity to reflect on and further develop their own Jewish identity and deepen their connection to Judaism. Our inaugural year saw nine families participate in an experiential Shabbaton to Vilnius in Lithuania. The trip was an opportunity to connect  with the pupils (and parents) of the ORT school there and see the impact of ORT’s work in the region. The familes also spent time  visiting places of interest in this historic community as well as sharing many emotional  andspiritual moments such as a communal Friday night service, havdallah and Israeli dancing.


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