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A Specific Direction for the 21st Century

July 12, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman, JE Feature
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Students from the robotics track at ORT Joseph Harmatz College in Givat Ram, a neighborhood of Jerusalem, show off their creations: soccer-playing robots. Yasmine Mansour (below, left), from ORT Hilmi Shafie in Akko, and Nufar Carmely, from ORT Darski, discuss the challenges and rewards of their schools' Arab-Jewish collaborations.
In the State of Israel, one of most valuable resources is the essence of the nation itself: the people. In a land where the collective effort and ingenuity of a population turned rocky soil into farmland, the education of Israelis remains one of the keys to the country's continued success. And one of the most fertile frontiers for the nation is the field of science and technology.

Yet in Israel, the challenge is to make sure that the fruits of the technology boom are not just going to the elite, but to a wide spectrum of the population. Through ORT Israel, which runs an array of schools throughout the country, many of the students who might not get the opportunity to learn high-tech skills now have that chance.

ORT Israel is the largest educational network in the country, with 162 schools serving some 100,000 students per year. The schools range from junior high to colleges, and the network that began as an organization of vocational schools has morphed into institutions that give students the hands-on training they need for jobs in the aerospace industry, biomedical engineering and a host of other fields.

The country is facing "a deep crisis in education," said Knesset Education Committee chair Rabbi Michael Melchior. He lamented the 16 major budget cuts to education that took place from 2001 to 2005, which deprived high school students of 81/2 hours of class each week.

"Even at times when the Jewish people had nothing," he said, "education was always provided for."

The transition to a more free-market economy has stretched the divide between the well-off and the needy, he explained: "We have today the biggest gaps between the have and have-nots in terms of education. ORT is one of the very few organizations that are touching on the emphasis of education."

'Percent of the Pie'

Yet ORT Israel has faced some controversies of its own. The recent split with ORT World was precipitated two years ago, according to Shai Lewinsohn, director of foreign relations and organizational development, over the issue of budget allocation.

ORT Israel argued that since it runs the largest number of schools, it should also receive a larger portion of funding -- a position that the world organization did not share.

"We cut the relationship with the management of World ORT," said Lewinsohn.

Some branches in ORT are mainly for fundraising purposes, while others are operational -- meaning they run schools -- explained Zvi Peleg, ORT Israel's director general. For example, France runs five schools, India runs one. Argentina has two and Brazil one, he continued, while Israel runs 162.

"We feel that we are 80 percent of the pie," he said.

"We know that World ORT collects more than $30 million per year," he added, though ORT Israel receives less than $3 million annually.

"Israel needs new education and more money" to lead it into the future, he said. "To take new schools costs money."

About 95 percent of the money to run the schools comes from the Israeli government, and the organization is currently beginning its own fundraising mechanisms to offset the cash it will no longer receive from ORT World. Peleg noted a goal of raising $10 million for ORT Israel.

And that extra funding makes a world of difference, explained Joel Rothschild, director of the ORT Israel Research and Development Center.

"The new Zionism is intellectual development," he said. Israel needs "settlements of education. The new ORT is the light for Torah, and the light for technology and science."

'Why Technology Was Born'

The students in ORT schools are using their newly nurtured talents in response to the obstacles their nation faces. At the ORT Moshinsky Center for R&D and Training in Tel Aviv, a wheeled robot skimmed across the lobby floor, halted in front of the lid of a tin can and sounded a series of beeps. It doused the lid with a spray of iridescent liquid, then skittered away.

The device was created by 19-year-old Robby Cohen, who mentioned his hopes that one day, the creation will be used to locate mines and mark them without putting soldiers at risk. "This is why technology was born," he said, "to save lives."

Cohen's project took third place in the ORTiada invention competition, which showed off the different projects of students -- from a telephone for the visually impaired to a recycling sorting system for high-rise buildings.

At ORT Joseph Harmatz College, in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, young people are taking advantage of several opportunities for them to advance their knowledge before they start their mandatory military service after graduation. The school has a special program that allows gifted students to work toward their university degree while still finishing high school.

For 12th-grader Evgeny Kinear, the school provided a special opportunity. The Moscow-born senior won second place in Israel's Young Scientist competition, with a cancer-treatment project that decreased the size of tumors in mice by 45 percent. He then attended the International Science and Engineering Fair in Albuquerque, N.M., where he got to meet other young scientists from around the world.

"Other schools just want to give the matriculation exam," explained the 18-year-old, but his experience was different: He got to work with Hebrew University professors and graduate students to go above and beyond normal requirements.

Another 12th-grader, Yuri Rozhansky, took the opportunity to write a matriculation paper on astrophysics.

"That is something that very few schools can give," he said. In addition to his matriculation work, he earned 15 university credits at the same time.

The students aren't just learning about technology in ORT schools, they're learning how to break down barriers within their own country.

In the city of Akko, in the north of Israel, sits one of ORT Israel's most unlikely schools. Nestled near the old city, ORT Hilmi Shafie has more than 1,200 students, mostly Muslim and a few Christians. The school's 120 teachers tend to be young, though the school itself has been around for more than 50 years.

"Our school is mixed in the new and the old," said the principal, Muhammad Hajooj. "I see with ORT, we can improve the school."

English teacher Ghadir Shafie -- daughter of the school's namesake -- has been working there for the past decade, and has seen remarkable changes since ORT came in five years ago. She actually called it a "renaissance."

Her father was formerly the vice mayor of Akko, and he pushed tolerance and pluralism, she explained, saying that "he taught people that tolerance is a shared responsibility."

With ORT's help, the size of the school increased from 862 to 1,200 students, reduced the number of dropouts per year from 32 to 6, and brought the student body together with Jewish students from nearby ORT schools.

"These values are very much the essence of ORT," she added. ORT is infusing the students with an important idea: "You have the opportunity to be equal."


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