The story of ORT is one of the most remarkable in modern Jewish life, for it was an organisation born of necessity that endured and flourished because of its ability to adapt to change. The history of ORT began officially in 1880, but a series of events beforehand created the conditions in which the need for such an organisation was imperative.
When, at the end of the eighteenth century, large tracts of Poland had been absorbed into Russia, the Russian Jewish population increased greatly. In 1794 a decree by Catherine the Great restricted the majority of Jews to an area known as the ‘Pale of Settlement’. Jews were not allowed to leave the Pale nor to own land outside it; they were moved from their villages into towns within the Pale and they could engage only in a restricted number of professions. Jewish merchants were taxed twice as heavily as non-Jews. Young men were conscripted into the army for excessively long terms. Crowded conditions and legal barriers to many kinds of work brought deepening poverty to the four million inhabitants; Jews had almost no means to support themselves.
The reign of Tsar Alexander II (1855-81) was marked by great changes in the extensive Russian Empire, and Jewish inhabitants were directly affected. The enlightened tsar brought an end to serfdom and instituted wide-ranging reforms that destroyed the feudal system and encouraged capitalism. The economic reforms, while enabling a tiny percentage of Jews to become wealthy, had the opposite effect on the majority. They found themselves further marginalised by the new system, as they lost their customary employment on the great estates of the feudal landlords. Jews had traditionally been innkeepers, brewers and distillers, peddlers and coachmen. New capitalist production needed factory workers and skilled craftsmen, but Jews did not have the necessary skills, having been excluded by law from many occupations. There was no organised training, and for most the situation became desperate. It affected not only Jews from towns within the Pale, but also those permitted to reside in large Russian cities, including St Petersburg.
Economic reforms gave a few Jews an opportunity to become rich, to come into prominence in society, to become leaders in industry, science and finance. But the majority of the Jewish population lived in abject poverty. With strict restrictions on choice of professions (the tsarist decree of 1794) Jews were deprived of the capability of earning a livelihood. It has been estimated that about a quarter of the Jewish population of working age had no profession at all.
Nikolai Bakst (1842-1904), a writer and professor of physiology at St Petersburg University, believed strongly that education and training for practical occupations were the key to the survival of Russian Jewry. Jews could no longer live in the poverty and oppression of the Pale without being taught how to support themselves and their families.
He not only envisaged an organisation that would accomplish this vital activity, but also persuaded Samuel Poliakov (1836-1888), a Jewish railroad entrepreneur, of the importance of his idea. He was joined in his appeal by Baron Horace Gunzburg (1833-1909), a generous and respected leader of Russian Jewry and founder of the St Petersburg Jewish community, who built a synagogue in the capital. The Baron entirely supported the idea of developing education for the benefit of the future of the Jewish nation. His descendants continued this charitable activity in Europe and America.
The intention of the founders of ORT (the acronym of the Russian words Obshestvo Remeslennogo i Zemledelcheskogo Truda, meaning The Society for Trades and Agricultural Work) was to organise vocational education for Jews, aiding craftsmen in procuring tools and materials and opening workshops, as well as aiding the resettlement of craftsmen in places where their labour was in demand.
On February 19, 1880, Samuel Poliakov addressed a petition to Tsar Alexander II, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his reign, requesting authority to create a fund to aid needy Jews. Permission for creating an ORT Provisional Committee and to collect money for this purpose was granted on March 22nd. The most prominent Jewish entrepreneurs, the Rabbi of St Petersburg, and representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia of the capital, all joined the committee, with Professor Bakst as its Executive Director.
On April 10th, a "circular letter" was sent to communities throughout Russia announcing the establishment of the new fund. This letter may be considered the founding document of ORT. The signatories, in addition to Poliakov, were Baron Horace Gunzburg, Abram I. Zak, Leon M. Rosenthal and Meer P. Fridland. The Jewish population in all parts of the country was called upon to contribute to the fund which was intended ‘to support and develop the existing vocational schools for Jews, to help open new schools, to help the Jewish agricultural colonies, model farms, and agricultural schools.’ The founders recognised the importance of a popular effort. The letter declared: ‘The participation of as large a number of people as possible is extremely dear to us and the gift of a rouble by a poor man is not less dear to us than the donations of tens of thousands.’ Response to the letter was widespread. And indeed, although Samuel Poliakov contributed 25,000 roubles, the bulk of the contributions was in small amounts. In a matter of two months, 12,457 donors in 40 towns and villages had sent in 204,000 roubles (the equivalent perhaps of over 8 million US dollars today).
ORT – an organisation that was to have such a significant effect on the lives of disadvantaged people – was born. The first ORT committee distributed money to Jewish schools for new handicraft and agricultural training. It provided loans to artisans and purchased small tracts of farmland for families to work. For Jews, most of these activities had been expressly banned by law until that point.