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The Central ORT Training Institute in Anieres

At the end of the Second World War ORT was faced with a daunting task: to establish – in some countries re-establish – a global network of technically advanced, Jewish vocational schools. These schools would need to inspire young students to first take up vocational studies and later to take pride in their new skills and chosen profession. In order to achieve this, first-class teachers were needed. Before the war most ORT teachers and instructors were trained in private apprenticeship by a master craftsman or, at best, had trained in a vocational school and then worked in the industry. Consequently, even the best ORT instructors were able to fulfil their potential only after four or five years of teaching experience. The Holocaust had depleted the workforce of Jewish craftsmen and women. The vast technical general staff of ORT was reduced to a few persons. For some trades it was impossible to find a Jewish instructor, even of average capability.

Dr Syngalowski was extremely concerned with this situation, as later recalled by Julius Hochman:

‘…as we were talking, he turned to me ... his face lit up with a shy smile of his and that unforgettable charm, and he said: "Friend Hochman, I am in trouble-- I need help". He then proceeded to tell me that for a long time he had felt that ORT required an institute of high scholarly and technical standards, to train and prepare teachers for our schools. There had always been a shortage of good teachers. In 1946, when the best of our youth had been destroyed in the war, the need was particularly acute. … He told me of an opportunity which had presented itself - to buy an estate not far from Geneva that would be suitable for establishing a teachers' institute he envisioned even in 1946. The price had been reasonable, and with the help of friends, he had bought that place. But now the building had to be completely renovated before it could be used as a school. Syngalowski wondered aloud how he could raise the necessary funds to remodel the building and a small budget to start a school.’

Source: In Memoriam Dr Syngalowski by Julius Hochman, 1957, pp. 3-4. Archive Ref: d20a034

At the 1946 ORT Union Congress in Paris it was decided to establish in Switzerland, near Geneva, ‘a Central Institute for the training of vocational school teachers and higher administrative personnel’.

In accordance with this decision and with support from Women's American ORT, the Central ORT Teachers Training Institute in Anieres was established and equipped during 1946-1948. Swiss experts drew up the curricula for the various sections, the workshops were equipped with up-to-date machinery, and the best available specialists were engaged as teachers.

It opened in February 1949 with 62 students from 12 countries in the following sections: mechanics, locksmithy, electrotechnics and cabinetmaking. The last section was closed after five years because of lack of student interest and was replaced by one in auto-mechanics. Plumbing and refrigeration were later added. Some mechanics students were given an additional year's schooling for training as teachers of draughtsmanship. As well as technical subjects, the curriculum covered general and Jewish studies, including Hebrew, English, history and literature.

The programme involved two years’ study at the Institute, after which students took the Swiss qualifying examination for skilled workers, and one year's work in industry. As well as technical studies, training was given in industrial psychology, general teacher training with special attention to vocational training methods, teaching exercises in training workshops and theoretical instruction. During the final year, students wrote a thesis and defended it before an examination board. When they passed, they received the diploma of ORT School Instructor.

The Institute provided students with room and board, full medical care, as well as their study materials. In addition to teaching facilities and state-of-the-art workshops, the Anieres building had dormitories, laundry facilities, a library, a synagogue, leisure and sports facilities. Meals were served in a large dining room.

Former student Jacques Levy fondly remembers the social life at Anieres:

‘On Friday evening, after dinner, we were entitled to “Oneg Shabbat” (Shabbat sweets) under the leadership of Hebrew teacher M. Joseph Daniéli. This was the time to sing of the wonders of our childhood, and especially sample the cakes and delicious beverages which were served to us.

On Saturday, sport ruled; teams got together at around 11:00 a.m. for memorable football matches!’

Two years after opening, in July 1951, the first class completed their studies, graduated from the Institute and embarked on their practical work experience in Swiss industry. In September 1952 the first diplomas were awarded to fifteen students who passed their teachers' examinations and began to teach in ORT schools in in Algeria, Belgium, France, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia.

The first students at Anieres were Europeans cast adrift by the upheaval of the Second World War. But by 1952, ORT schools in Israel and North Africa were sending their own graduates to the Institute for teacher training. According to former ORT Tunis student and Anieres graduate Joseph Guedj, who went on to become Director of ORT India, the decision to do so encouraged young students in those schools to work even harder and competition for selection for teacher training in Anieres was fierce. In the following years, until 1959, each year 20 to 30 new teachers trained at the Anieres Institute were added to the ORT teaching staff. From 1949 to 1960, two hundred young men from Europe, Asia, Africa and America were awarded teaching diplomas in the following subjects: mechanics, electro-mechanics, auto-mechanics, metallurgy, technical installation, cabinet making and construction design. One hundred and sixty of these graduates were assigned to ORT schools in Algeria, Belgium, France, Iran, Israel, Italy, Morocco and Tunisia; some of whom were later promoted to works supervisors and technical directors. In some countries – in Iran, Tunisia and Morocco, for example – Anieres graduates were largely responsible for the extension of curricula and for a higher level of studies in ORT schools. In the 1960s, following the establishment of the ORT programme in India, top students from the first graduating classes were sent to the Central ORT Institute for training as the first indigenous Indian Jewish vocational teachers.

In addition to its regular programme, the Institute provided several special programmes. In 1959, following an agreement between ORT Union and the Rupin Agricultural Institute of Israel, a group of 17 men from kibbutzim and farm settlements was admitted to the Central Institute in Anieres where they went through a refresher course of theoretical and practical instruction before being sent to specialised enterprises in Switzerland and England. Following its success, eight more such refresher courses were run, with 106 graduates.

To help relieve one of Israel's most serious personnel deficits, another agreement, concluded with the Israeli Ministry of Labour, the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), brought 11 foremen and supervisors to Switzerland to work in Swiss factories and to follow special courses at the Institute. In view of the success of this initiative, other groups arrived in Geneva in 1960 and a total of 28 foremen were trained.

Between 1964 and 1973, following the initiation of ORT Technical Assistance programmes (later ORT International Cooperation or IC) in the developing world, numbers of students came to the Institute from Mali, Guinea, Gabon, Latin America, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Iran. Of these, technical assistance programmes in Mali and Guinea were among the first to send staff for training at Anieres before their handover to the local people who had been trained by ORT.

The Jewish Institute of Higher Technical Education in Switzerland’ by Boris Smolar, ORT Bulletin, Vol. XVII No. 3, Oct. 1963. Excerpt from an article widely published in the US Jewish press.

In addition, at the request of the Swiss Foreign Ministry, the Institute's teacher training facilities organised special projects for instruction to groups from countries to which Switzerland wished to give technical assistance. The first group of 18 students from the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) studied at the Institute for 18 months. They were followed at the end of 1962 by two groups from Iran, 30 in all. In 1969 a group of 15 young men from Latin America (Argentina and Uruguay) was admitted to the Institute under Swiss sponsorship. This group finished its course in 1970 and was immediately followed by a group of 18 students from Ivory Coast. The following years saw a number of groups of Ivory Coast students at the Institute.

The Institute also became the main staging headquarters for briefing of staff assigned to U.S. government projects in West Africa and the training of teachers for these countries. Training was also organised for the U.S. Peace Corps.

After the first decade of the Central Institute's existence, the urgent need for teachers in ORT schools had been largely filled. However, with the transformation of many ORT institutions into secondary technical schools with a four, or even five-year period of instruction, vocational instructors with higher qualifications were needed.

ORT Union therefore decided to change and extend the teacher training curriculum of the Institute to a period of several years. Beginning with the 1959-60 school year, the Institute, in close cooperation with the École Technique Supérieure of Geneva, began training technicians in the mechanics, electricity and civil engineering fields. Following an entrance exam, students would embark on a four-year course leading to the degree of engineer-technician. For example, in 1975, 19 students had taken their fourth-year courses at the École Technique Supérieure and had received diplomas as engineer-technicians, six of them graduating as nuclear engineers. Upon completion of their studies, Anieres graduate technicians were sent to ORT schools as technical instructors to teach industrial design, general and professional technology, physics, chemistry, applied computation, etc. Later on, Anieres students were also able to continue higher studies at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or in certain Swiss and French universities.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and early 80s ORT continued giving its graduates scholarships to study at ORT Anières (and the Ecole Technique Supérieure) and in return expected their commitment to teach at an ORT school in their own countries for five years. While some fulfilled the agreement, others did not. Instead of returning to their own countries, they preferred – understandably perhaps – to stay in Switzerland or move to France. By the 1980s, only a few graduates joined the ORT network as teachers. This situation, together with a decline in demand for training as ORT national organisations developed and became self-sufficient in this respect, led to the termination of activities at ORT Anières in 1983.

After the Institute closed down, in 1984 the premises were leased to a refugee welfare organisation, under the control of the Geneva authorities. However, at the beginning of the 1990s ORT decided not to renew the lease and to resume its activities in the area. The plan was to establish three different programmes at Anières: a centre for management studies (including public and voluntary organisations); a hi-tech resource centre for technical and educational training; and a Jewish community leadership programme. After long debates within the organisation about the validity of the project, with strong opinions for and against, in 1991 ORT decided to refurbish the premises and re-establish operations. In the mid-1990s, ORT Anières carried out leadership development programmes for Jewish lay leaders and professionals, multimedia technology courses and various seminars. The activities, however, were short-lived and the building was eventually sold in 1997.

ORT Anieres was a unique institution. The contribution of its graduates to the global ORT network has been immense. Anieres graduates have formed successful careers thanks to the education and experience gained at the Institute and remember it fondly. They have formed a close alumni network with regular reunions and social activities (see For a full history of the Anieres Institute from an alumni perspective see Jacques Levy’s book in English and French.