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Jewish Journal

ORT’s Israel schools meld technology and tikkun olam

by Amy Klein

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Like many high school seniors, Shlomi Tamnu was presented with a problem to solve: Little children were scared of wearing the mask used to deliver anesthesia and treat asthma. But unlike hypothetical math problems, this situation was real.

The 18-year-old Ethiopian boy from northern Israel's Afula helped put together a real-world solution. The result was a prototype mask called "The Will to Inhale," which uses an attached computer game to help distract children. Tamnu and his team won third prize in the ORTiada -- a national technology competition for ORT Israel schools - worth 4000 NIS (around $1,000), and a promising future.

Tamnu, a lanky boy with a shy pride more typical of Ethiopians than native-born Israelis, said next year he plans to defer his military service to study computer engineering. "I like it," he said about the competition and the unique ORT Israel high school education he's about to complete. "Not every day is just sitting and studying with books."

With 167 high schools and colleges serving 100,000 students, the independent, apolitical ORT Israel system is taking over many Israeli schools, teaching a curriculum of both technology -- from the cutting edge of satellites and nanobiotechnology to the basic nuts and bolts of mechanical engineering -- and instilling Jewish values of giving back to society. With these two focal points, ORT Israel hopes to revolutionize the Israeli educational system -- and Israeli society.

And it's a society sorely in need of a public education makeover. In the last decade, the defense and security budgets have ballooned while public school funding has been slashed and slashed again. In 2005 alone there were 16 budget cuts, resulting in six and a half hours less for grade school and eight hours less for high school.

"This country is in a deep, deep crisis in education," said Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior, chair of the Knesset's Education Committee. "Throughout history the Jewish people have understood that education is the most important thing: It doesn't matter if you lived in a shtetl in Europe or Morocco, you always knew that education would decide the future."

Melchior said he is trying to turn the Israeli educational system around. He wants to double the salaries for the country's more than 100,000 teachers, reduce overcrowding by creating 8,000 new classrooms, limit classes to 20 students, stem the drop-out rate and make education compulsory until 18 -- and that's before dealing with the content of what is being taught in class.

Enter ORT Israel, "one of the very, very few organizations which are touching on the essence of education as I see it," Melchior said.

ORT Israel was established in 1949, with a school in Jaffa and one in Jerusalem. It was a member country of World ORT, a federation of independent national organizations focused on technology and science education, until last year, when Israel split from World ORT due to management and allocation issues. (ORT America belongs to the World ORT system, and still raises funds for Israel. However, their funds -- $7.2 million for 30,000 Israeli students -- goes to Israeli schools chosen by the government, and not ORT Israel schools. As of last week, a U.S. judge barred ORT Israel from fundraising in the United States. A hearing is pending.)

Today ORT Israel has a budget of more than $225 million -- 95 percent from the government, the rest from private donations and tuition. To date, it has graduated about 500,000 students.

While there are a number of educational programs that subcontract the operation of Israeli public schools (with funding from the government), most are connected to a political or religious party and inculcate students with their values. (For example, Amal belongs to the Labor party, AMIT belongs to Mizrahi.)

"We only know education," said Zvika Peleg, the director-general of ORT Israel. "We are not obligated to anyone."

At the same time, ORT Israel is trying to change its reputation of being vocational schools geared toward the lower class and minorities.

"That image is being turned around," Melchior said. "Today to be identified with an ORT Israel school, you're identified with the best skills, particularly in technology and preparation for work in 21st century, with high knowledge and education and high skills in every area."

If it's true that ORT Israel has changed its reputation -- although it will take time, as some stigmas die hard -- that turnaround can be attributed to Peled.

A compact man whose crocheted yarmulke holds down his curly graying hair, Peleg seems powered by the cheerful, boundless spring of an Energizer bunny.

As he bounces between ORT Israel schools in north, south and central Israel, pumping hands and tousling students' hair, he ensures schools are up to speed, adopting the latest educational programs, forging unions with nearby companies and universities, and creating new volunteering or outreach programs. For him, this is key to Israel's survival.

"We have enough problems all over our borders, and if you want to survive in Israel we have to build a new society that can speak one with the other, can respect the other and can help each other and only if we can build a strong society we can achieve anything," Peleg said.

Peleg's talk about values means not only the teaching of Jewish history, Torah and culture that is absent from secular Israeli schools, but also implementing volunteer and outreach programs at ORT Israel schools.

These are programs such as Sunflowers, where ORT Israel students visit cancer patients at 17 medical centers throughout Israel, or the Ethiopian National Project to promote the scholastic achievements of Ethiopian students, or the Jewish Arab Co-existence Project, which joins together Arab and Jewish students.

"Everyone wants to take, take, take and not to give," Peleg said, which he followed by paraphrasing J.F.K. "Every morning you have to get up and say, 'What are you going to do in your community?' You are going to help in the old people in the community, you are going to help in the hospitals."

While there are a number of universities and schools that include volunteerism and charity as part of their curricula, it's the technology component that differentiates ORT Israel from the many of the Israeli liberal arts schools."We need to strengthen Israel's economic situation," Peleg said. "If we want [Israel] to be economically independent, we have to motivate our children to choose science and technology."

Do children want to choose science and technology?

Some, like Yakir Menachem, say they always dreamed of it. But the blond-haired, blue-eyed Israeli boy from Holon, in the central region, never got along with his teachers and had to leave school. In ninth grade he came to ORT Tel Nof, an aviation high school that feeds graduates to the Israeli air force. Now in 11th grade, he studies mechatronics (mechanical electronics) and is preparing for the Bagrut (matriculation exam).

"I always wanted to do the Bagrut, but I didn't know if I could," he said. He hopes to serve in the air force. "I am not sure I will do this profession when I grow up, but I am sure that it gives me a knowledge that if I want to go to a higher school, it will help me."

In addition to skilled technicians and practical engineers, ORT Israel is aiming its sights on Israel's top students, such as Maxim Savcheko who studies at ORT Givat Ram in Jerusalem.

Featuring 1,000 high school students and 600 junior high students, Hebrew University-adjacent ORT Givat Ram is the biggest high school in Jerusalem and is one of four ORT Israel schools in the nation's capital. Twenty-five percent of the students are from families who came from the former Soviet Union.

Savcheko, 17, was one of five Givat Ram students going to the RoboCup junior competition in Atlanta this past June.

"We designed a rescue robot that searches for wounded victims after a terror attack," he said of his and Leo Sarikas' foot-high creation of wood, wires and circuits, a project that combines ORT Israel's mottos of technology and charity. "Every component of the robot was designed by us."

Although ORT Israel educates about 10 percent of the Israeli public school population, Peleg's dreams are bigger than running 167 junior high, high schools and colleges.

"We get students after elementary school and it's too late," he said. ORT Israel is a "holistic program. We want ORT Israel to take care of students from kindergarten through high school."

Does ORT Israel plan to take over the entire Israeli educational system?

Peleg laughs, as if the idea has never occurred to him, even though many times during ORT Israel's four-day sponsored press trip, which this reporter participated in, he made statements like "Mass education is bound to fail," and "Government should set the standards and others should run the schools."

For now, Peleg said, "I am not going to replace the government. I think if I can show the government [how well this works] the government will adopt the program."

Melchior would be glad to hear this, because he believes systems like ORT Israel only work well within the framework of government. "ORT is strengthening the level of education, giving the kids the content the public system can't," Melchior said. "I do believe the state has to take full responsibility.... If it comes instead of the state, it's catastrophic."

Of course, ORT Israel is nowhere near a takeover of the entire Israeli educational system, but has the organization extended itself too far? ORT Israel now teaches science and technology to junior high, high school, technical school and colleges, at both the technical and professional levels, hoping to attract students in the periphery, minorities and the impoverished, as well as the top students in the country. Not to mention give them a well-rounded education with a foundation in Jewish values.

Peleg shrugs it all off. He's been called a megalomaniac and worse. All he's interested in is educating the Israeli youth.

"Education is the celebration of creativity," he said. "The youth are the future of Israel."

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