STEAM fuels the ORT mission. Opportunity and adaptability propel it forward.

May 27, 2020

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Remaining relevant in a world of clashing ideologies and mixed agendas, crisis upon crisis, decade after decade, is the most striking feature of a legacy organization such as ORT. Fixed, yet flexible, the foundation of ORT’s high-tech educational mission is relevance. That box was checked long before ‘Pandemic 2020.’

Barbara Birch joined ORT America as CEO in 2019 and has a dual perspective; before and during the time safe distancing became a lifestyle.

“ORT has always stepped in with the right action at the right time. From World War II DP camps to a global pandemic, ORT responds with on-point training and education in significant moments,” says Birch. “ORT pivots in response to what people need.

And now, as ORT meets the challenges of lockdowns around the world, I’m moved by how we immediately stepped up to support students and teachers.”

At the onset of the pandemic, ORT’s team of educators rallied by designing two new programs that made an instant impact.

More than 150 volunteers immediately signed up for the Virtual Volunteer program, creating a space for mentoring between donors and volunteers and students. Virtual Volunteers invites one-on-one and group conversations among students and volunteers about an area of shared professional interest. “People jumped at the opportunity to help in a tangible way,” says Birch.

“Students feel more connected, less isolated, and it takes some pressure off teachers.”

Creative Connections is another rapid response that addressed the challenges of living and learning online 24/7. Students were invited to compete internationally for prizes by completing and submitting offline projects such as song-composition, photography, dance, and painting, “virtually anything that didn’t involve a screen,” says Birch.

Distance learning is a double-edged sword. On the downside, the digital divide shows up with respect to access to devices and resources to work online, leaving many students at risk of being left behind. The health pandemic created an economic crisis, which spirals into a bigger learning crisis. In some cases, parents don’t speak Hebrew and can’t help or students may have poor internet connectivity. To prevent dropouts due to COVID-19, ORT is raising funds for computers and tablets so students can continue to learn at home, and, for students who may have fallen behind, ORT is prepared to provide increased teaching hours and tutoring once school starts up again.

United Jewish Federation of Tidewater allocates a portion of overseas dollars to programming in Kiryat Yam in northern Israel, where ORT has made significant investments to improve the quality of education and enhance the entire community. In Kiryat Yam, World ORT Kadima Mada manages two schools, runs YOUniversity, an afterschool program offering courses in robotics, photography, app development and graphic design, and built a science center and Mada (Science) Park, which serves the entire region. This funding, in conjunction with additional government funds received, enables ORT to offer the career-building benefits of a STEAM-based education rich in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. By placing students from challenged backgrounds on ORT’s Kadima Mada ‘science journey’ at a young age, and providing a holistic support system, ORT levels the playing field, providing equal opportunities and fostering social mobility for all.

“By building up lower economic immigrant communities, ORT is enabling today’s students to become successful and engaged Israeli citizens, which will strengthen Israel as a whole.”

As part of ORT America’s outreach efforts, they are trying to cultivate new members and reach a younger audience by meeting them where they are, on the issues that matter to them. “Millennials care about social justice and economic equality. ORT’s work sits at the intersection between ability and opportunity, bridging the gap for those in under-resourced communities,” says Birch.

In Kiryat Yam, UJFT invests in programming designed to engage young people and gets them excited about science and tech and so much more. In doing so it produces a ‘what comes next’ level of excitement about life and learning.”

Globally, ORT’s target audience skews young—and old. ORT’s outreach covers a broad range of vulnerable people. Programs and initiatives benefit high school students at risk of dropping out and seniors who need digital skills to stay alive. From online shopping for necessities, to opera, and FaceTiming with family, ORT has been a lifeline.

From 1880 to 2020, the ORT timeline is a master class on how to stay relevant.

This is part of a series of articles spotlighting local and overseas partner agencies that are beneficiaries of the United Jewish Federation Tidewater’s annual Community Campaign.

– Lisa Richmon

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