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History of Women's American ORT

Exploring the History of ORT

Women's American ORT (WAO) was founded October 12, 1927, to assist ORT in providing financial support to the ORT program serving Eastern European Jews. Most of the founders were wives of American ORT leaders. Florence Dolowitz was the wife of the treasurer of American ORT; Anna Boudin was the wife of lawyer Louis Boudin, who was also vice president of American ORT. Their marital connections were critical factors in creating an auxiliary organization to assist their husband’s work.

The women's early support for ORT was limited to bazaars and concerts spearheaded by the wives of ORT leaders and their friends, led by Fannie Shluger and Mrs. Jacob Panken. A glamorous recital by Efram Zimbalist at Carnegie Hall in 1928 to help the Jews in Eastern Europe launched their activities as a women's auxiliary. The concert program listed as patrons some of the leading American Jewish women of German origin. Supporters also included Eastern European Jewish wives and leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, reflecting the close support between the labor movement and ORT that would continue throughout its history.

In its first years, the women helped raise funds for the ORT Reconstruction Committee, designed to help Eastern Europe's Jews recover from World War I. Only one woman sat on the American ORT National Committee at that time: Louise C. Taussie.

Women’s support of ORT reflected Jewish women’s emergence into public life by creating their own organizations to meet community needs. After World War I, some women were becoming increasingly independent due to their service in the war and activism in such causes as obtaining votes for women. Many middle-class women, however, remained cautious about public activism and preferred to put their energies into more traditional social service.  Although a few Jewish women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, were independent of men in the 1930s, many remained as auxiliaries.  WAO, still a brand-new organization of women finding its way, fit that pattern of social service in connection to larger, male-run groups.

By 1933, the women's auxiliary was large enough to put on a pageant, Activities of ORT, at the 44th Street Theater in New York City, demonstrating the various skills taught by ORT in different countries. A year later, the women raised money to rescue 600 workshops in Poland that trained 5,000 workers. Women’s American ORT soon branched out beyond Manhattan to Long Island, and then to other cities, from San Antonio to Chicago.

The pioneers were not content to limit their organizing efforts to the United States. A Women's ORT was organized in Poland in 1935, launched by Anna and Louis Boudin, leaders of women's and men's American ORT. WAO increased its assistance to Jews in Poland as their intense poverty worsened in the years before the Nazi invasion.

By 1937, as war became imminent, WAO raised funds for the relief of German refugees and intensified its efforts for Polish Jewish workers. WAO created study groups to educate women in the situation in Eastern Europe. WAO strongly supported ORT's work in Germany and Eastern Europe, as it precariously maintained training schools after the Nazi anschluss and invasion of Poland in 1938. During this period in Germany, for example, ORT opened a vocational high school in Berlin that survived until 1943.

At this critical juncture, WAO's prestigious honorary chairman, Mrs. Albert Einstein, died.  Her loss made it harder to fulfill WAO's 1938 pledge to raise $50,000, but they met their goal. In doing so, WAO established itself as a vital element in the survival of the World ORT Union at an especially perilous time in its history. Einstein's place remained vacant until 1950, when the Baroness Pierre de Gunzbourg became WAO's honorary national president, remaining in that post until her death in 1969.

World War II

As war neared in 1940, WAO was created as an independent organization at American ORT's first annual convention in thirteen years, with the theme "A Trade Is a Refugee’s Passport." WAO was no longer content to remain a women’s auxiliary to men. Their fundraising prowess and critical influence in ORT affairs had apparently convinced the women that they had the skills and experience to act independently. The urgent need to raise money for imperiled European Jews who were now less able to raise funds themselves appears to have compounded their belief that they needed to act quickly. This demanded independence from American ORT, caught up in the multitude of contrasting demands from their members, clients, and supporters. Above all, they were guided by the example of other Jewish women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, which were tackling refugee problems with vigor and distinction.

As the Nazis conquered Europe, WAO funded ORT accommodations for refugees in various ORT installations in France, vocational courses in Swiss camps and internment homes, and maintenance of ORT workshops in Polish ghettos that managed to be kept alive until the ghettos were destroyed.

By the end of the World War II, ORT had transformed itself into an emergency organization primarily serving adult displaced persons (DPs) about to migrate or in transit. WAO was a vital element in funding ORT’s postwar vocational training in the DP camps, as well as the rehabilitation of DPs in the United States, Israel, Holland, Belgium, Greece, and elsewhere in free Europe. In Israel, WAO was particularly instrumental in establishing vocational and agricultural schools for refugees. In the process, WAO leaders became skilled in fundraising for postwar needs. 

The New Era

By 1950, Women’s American ORT's membership had climbed to more than 12,000, and the organization had become a financial mainstay of the World ORT Union. Among all World ORT Union members, "By far the most spectacular expansion was registered by Women’s American ORT," notes Jack Rader in ORT's official history.

Women of the 1950s who had worked or run wartime volunteer efforts returned to the home as men returned from the war. Still, these women had acquired skills during wartime that they did not wish to abandon in peacetime. Volunteerism filled that gap, as it had for women after World War I.

By the mid-1950s, WAO was helping to fund ORT's growing network of vocational and technical high schools in Western Europe and North Africa, Iran, India, and Israel.  Technical schools and schools for special needs were established across the developing countries as well.

WAO boasted of a "distinctive and unique role" in world Jewish life by 1958. It funded scholarships for teacher training, social assistance to needy students, preventive medical care, maintenance of vocational training schools, and support of Tel Aviv’s Aaron Syngalowski Center, ORT Braude College of Engineering in Karmiel, Bramson ORT College in New York, and Zarem Golde Technical Institute in Chicago, among others. It also helped fund the establishment of a network of large ORT apprentice training centers throughout Israel.

The Approach of a New Millennium

In response to concern from its membership, WAO became involved in various human and women’s rights issues. WAO became a member of various community-wide umbrella organizations including: Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, National Conference on Soviet Jewry, Leadership Conference of National Jewish Women’s Organizations, American Vocational Association, National Coalition Against Censorship, Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. As an expression of concern for national women’s rights, WAO co-sponsored The March for Women’s Equality in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1989.

Responding to shifting demographics, changing lifestyles and the large-scale movement of women into the work force, WAO formally created a National Young Leadership Development Department in 1994. The department’s goal is the development of a strong assembly of young leaders (age 45 and under).

In memory of Nathan Gould, who expanded ORT and WAO's horizons as National Executive Director and Executive Vice President, WAO established the Nathan Gould Endowment Fund to build future leadership. Nathan Gould mobilized the support of WAO to meet the needs of Jewish communities in Morocco, Latin America, France, and Israel. He took the lead in bringing ORT programs to the United States while building leadership among WAO members.

By 2006, WAO had become the largest membership organization within the ORT network.

In 2007, Women's American ORT merged with American ORT to become ORT America.

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