In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by the underground organisation ‘People’s Will’, which had many Jewish followers. His son, Alexander III, was a reactionary who cancelled many of his father’s liberalising laws. This led to the first official anti-Jewish pogroms: Jews were slaughtered in Kiev, Odessa, Warsaw and elsewhere in the Baltic countries. The May Rules of May 3, 1882 imposed harsh restrictions on all aspects of Jewish life, and the Jewish community’s hopes for a freer existence were dashed. Jews began to emigrate in great numbers, particularly to America, the most desired destination. This climate of dashed hopes and new fears was documented in the newspaper, Russki Yevrey on September 22, 1882:
‘Not so long ago, a year and a half at most, we often mentioned in these columns the noble effort on behalf of the poor Jewish masses ... The evolution of ORT was slow but constant. It was helped by an influx of funds, of power and energy, indispensable for development of its future activity. And now, in so short a time, everything is changed. Pogroms have broken out, a vast emigration has commenced and to cap it all, there are those well-known decrees which in a way are a corollary of the pogroms which have destroyed the bases of existence of thousands of families ...’
Despite all this and within the limits allowed, ORT persisted. Aid was given to individual craftsmen to move out of the Pale, loans were made to artisans for purchases of equipment, subsidies were granted to trade schools and vocational courses were established. Trade classes were instituted in religious schools, and scholarships were granted to students to attend technical and agricultural institutes. Seven years after the founding of ORT, two Jewish trade schools were opened: in Dvinsk [Daugavpils] and Simferopol.
By the mid-1890s ORT activity spread throughout many cities and towns within the Pale. ORT paid for teachers at Jewish trade schools, opened trade classes for boys and girls and gave craftsmen loans for opening their own workshops. In most cases ORT provided money to private Jewish trade schools on condition of teaching, for no charge, a set number of children from poor Jewish families. ORT also endeavoured to give Russian Jews education and skills in the area of agriculture. In 1903 an agricultural school was built in Minsk, and an attached farm was established.
At the beginning of the 20th century, specialised ORT trade classes and departments appeared in large cities outside the Pale, in Riga, Yuryev [Tartu] and Taganrog.
According to a study made in St Petersburg in 1902 by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), during its first twenty years the Provisional Committee aided 11,869 vocational students and apprentices, and 3,665 farmers in approximately 100 localities; helped move 261 families of craftsmen out of the Pale; and provided funds for tools to 1,709 artisans. The committee had also subsidised fifty classes in manual training in communal schools, with 2,369 youngsters. The study recommended that JCA grant the Provisional Committee an annual subsidy of 18,120 roubles for three years, in the words of the JCA survey: ‘A modest sum, especially if we consider the unique character of the endeavour for which it is intended, and the scope of this endeavour's diversified activity covering all of Russia.’
For the first 27 years, ORT was only permitted to act as a provisional committee. The original approval for establishment of the Provisional ORT Committee by the Minister of Interior in 1880 had stipulated that ‘the first General Assembly shall be convened after the approval of the Society's statutes.’ However, the draft bylaws submitted in the mid-1880s had travelled from one government department to another, with no decision being reached. The Tsarist authorities did not favour a society working for the betterment of Jewish conditions and refused to approve the bylaws. Despite this, the tact and energy of the Provisional Committee’s leaders enabled it to act successfully throughout Russia. The income of the Provisional Committee between 1880 and 1906 amounted to, 1,132,214 roubles, a large sum for the time. To promote artisanship, the committee distributed 203,673 roubles. For vocational training it made grants totalling 325,475 roubles. For aid to Jews in farming, it gave 121,708 roubles. Another 49,625 was spent for organisational purposes. Altogether, the committee spent 703,482 roubles.