How a 19th Century Jewish Russian Organization Helped me Recognize my Privilege
I don’t remember his name but he must have been around thirty years old.
“To whom it may concern”, I started the letter, trying to sound all official. Then I erased it.
“To the Los Angeles police department” that’s better I thought.
“Student X has attended class every day for the past two weeks. He has not been a disturbance and has completed all of his class work on time. He is a great addition to the class and it would be beneficial to no one were he to stop his studies.”
It all started about 140 years ago when millions of poverty stricken Russian Jews were forced by the government to live in the Pale of Settlement. With no education, rigid legal barriers to Jews partaking in the workforce, and the pervasive anti-semitism of the wider society Jews had very little chance for upward economic mobility.
Enter a couple of young and determined Jews. Realizing the desperate situation a small group of tenacious Jews were able to petition the Tsar for small allocation of money to open a trade school for Russian Jews. Providing training in a variety of practical fields, this new organization known at ORT (Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda - Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades), came onto the scene and educated tens of thousands of Jews in its first 25 years.
But since its nascent Russian days ORT has grown and evolved into an international organization. An international organization that, in many way, mirrors the story of 20th century Ashkenazic Jewry.
When the students asked me how old I was I lied. It wasn’t a malicious lie, quite the opposite actually. I had access to the class roster with all of their personal data. I could see that most of the students were well into their late twenties and early thirties. I had just turned 23 a couple weeks prior.
So I told them I was 27. It wasn’t about respect, rather it was about not embarrassing the students were they to realize that someone ten years their junior was their teacher. And one student's reaction gave me internal confirmation that lying was the right move.
“You are 27 and already have your bachelors degree!” one of the women in the front row of my class exclaimed. She was a single mother in her thirties who worked an early morning shift before class each day, came to school for eight hours, and then went home to care for her son before waking up at 4am to repeat the cycle.
“Yeah, I guess I was lucky enough to finish school early” I replied. Could I possibly explain to her that in my hometown community most people are either making six figure salaries or done with med and law school by 27?
When the Nazis rose to power in Germany Jewish children were almost immediately banned from any state sponsored school, but ORT was there to take over the mantle of education. All throughout Nazi occupation, ORT was active across Eastern Europe providing various forms of education to a terrified Jewish community. Even in the Warsaw Ghetto ORT was active up until the day of its liquidation. After the war ORT moved with the Jews into various DP camps and then to the newly founded state of Israel. Many early refugees who came to Israel from across the world were educated by the organization. Still today ORT is the largest educational organization across Israel.
I technically didn’t even apply for the job. I was studying for my Masters in Jewish history at the time and looking for a full time job for the following year. I came across an online ad that said that the local Los Angeles ORT branch was looking for a part-time Jewish studies lecturer. I sent a short email asking about the details, attached my resume, and clicked ‘send’. About ten minutes later I got a phone call asking if I can come in that afternoon for an interview.
The first thing that the dean told me was that they no longer needed a lecturer for Jewish studies. Great.
We asked you to come in, she said, because we see that you’re a writer.
A writer huh. I had stuck my old blog name on my resume under a heading called writer, so I guess I was a writer. We want you to teach our introductory writing course, she said.
In the 1920’s while ORT was spreading across Jewish Europe it made another move, to North America, where it would eventually take on an entirely different identity - again keeping stride with the Ashkenazi Jewish community. As the bulk of the 20th century unfolded, the American Jewish community was no longer the sad, persecuted, basket-case that it had been throughout its European roots. Rather, the American Jewish community was often at the forefront of various social and philanthropic movements. Today ORT in America has rebranded itself as an educational non-profit specifically geared towards underprivileged communities.
There were no Jews in my class. All of my students were from various minority or low socio-economic homes. And almost none of my students had ever thought they would continue their education past high school. They simply couldn’t afford it. Yet here they were at ORT pursuing subsidized associates degrees, a step that would lead to either a higher paying job or a four year university.
One of my students, a young black man, had been arrested for marijuana possession and was at risk of his losing his scholarship pending a police report. The details were a bit blurred but he had come to me after class and said that the police department wanted signed confirmation that he was actively in school and completing his work. Nearly all of my friends possessed marijuana at the time, some even dealing, knowing that they would never be punished.
As I spent more time at ORT, learning its place throughout modern Jewish history, I couldn’t have been more proud to have been a (small) part of it. In every generation it seems that ORT was there to fill the pressing educational needs of the Jews at the time. In Russia Jews needed practical job training, allowing them to bypass the anti-semitic barriers to Jewish professional training. Ditto under Nazi occupation.
In the post-war DP camps ORT was there to educate a generation of Jewish refugees, who had just escaped the hellfires of the holocaust, so they could become self sufficient within a few years. With the founding of the Jewish state ORT was there to provide technological education throughout the country, helping solidify Israel’s position as the Start-Up Nation.
And in 21st century America, ORT was there to show me just how privileged I was to grow up in a household where my parents were always around, food was always plentiful, and higher education wasn’t a goal but an assumed life step. I don’t know if any of my students remember much about my class, it was mostly me teaching them how to do things like draft an email to a potential employer or create a resume. But I know that the lessons I learned as a teacher was an educational experience that I will never forget.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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