ORT Before the First World War

The Revolution of 1905 was one of the pivotal events of Russian history, a prelude to the upheaval that was to follow twelve years later. Yet, while the political climate was liberalised, conditions did not greatly improve. More and more Jews crowded into the cities. The beginnings of industrialisation was producing a Jewish proletariat and a mass artisan class whose work methods were usually as inefficient as their incomes were meagre. Traditional occupations became less and less tenable.

Nevertheless, the political reforms which the Revolution had wrenched from the Tsar legalised the establishment of organisations and permitted their functioning with some degree of normality. In June 1906, a revised version of the bylaws was submitted for registration in accordance with the new and more liberal law of March 4, 1906. They were duly registered on 5 September 1906 and published in Senatskie Vedomosti [Official Gazette] on 11 November that year.

In the process of the regulatory development and registration, the lawyer, writer and public figure Leon Bramson was invited as an adviser. From this moment and until his death, the Bramson name was always associated with ORT.

The first ORT Society General Assembly was held on December 3, 1906. The programme adopted a plan to establish a general membership, hold public meetings, elect officers and in other ways operate on a regular organisational basis. Baron Horace Gunzburg was elected President of the Society, and Ippolit Wavelberg was elected Treasurer. Isaak Berger became the Executive Head. The new ORT received from the Provisional Committee the unexpended balance of the Committee's funds, amounting to 428,731 roubles, which became its initial working capital.

The revamped organisation adopted a more dynamic and broader outlook. Its orientation was redirected toward community projects, although individual aid was continued. The first systematic surveys were made to determine actual conditions in various trades and localities. Information on market conditions and employment opportunities was published.

Steps were taken to modernise and improve the quality of Jewish labour. An extensive programme of vocational courses for apprentices was sponsored. Other courses were opened in Vilna [Vilnius] for electricians and carpenters and in St Petersburg for auto-mechanics. They were among the very first training projects in these trades. Refresher courses for craftsmen and industrial instruction for "merchants" overcome by mechanisation were organised.

Mobile workshops were organised to roam the towns and villages of the Pale of Settlement with the purpose of raising the technical standards of Jewish carpenters, tinsmiths and shoemakers. Craftsmen were helped to resettle outside the Pale and others were granted loans for tools and machines.

Encouragement was given to the introduction of new occupations, as a means of broadening the base of job possibilities. ORT maintained a number of trade schools, the largest of them in Dvinsk [Daugavpils], Latvia. Manual training shops, as adjuncts to religious schools, were increased in number. At a time of rapid urbanisation, special attention was paid to youth from the villages who were seeking jobs in the new industries.

In 1911, Bramson became Executive Director and ORT’s second great leader. With his active support ORT founded and pioneered new trends and activities: the development of industrial and consumer cooperation among Jews. At the beginning of the 20th century, many progressive economists, not only in Russia, considered the co-operative movement as hope for rapid growth in prosperity. Within this framework, instead of restricting itself to helping individual artisans, ORT formed work cooperatives along modern lines, involving considerable numbers of people, working with good equipment. Existing cooperatives were offered low-cost credit for purchase of raw materials. Their members were instructed in scientific methods of production and quality controls were introduced to make products competitive. ORT also experimented with organising sales outlets for the distribution of artisans’ goods. By 1913, ORT groups were functioning in twenty cities.

The problem of adults acquiring professional skills was important to ORT. For this purpose specialised courses were opened. ORT endeavoured to give students the most prestigious and demanded professions. For example, in Vilna [Vilnius], electro-technical courses were opened in advance of the introduction of an electrical street car programme in the city.