Denied access to their heritage and made convenient scapegoats in Cold War regional power plays, many Jews lost all connection to their identity save their surname and the discrimination that it attracted.
As we mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel, we also worry for the future, how we will be able to remember the Holocaust without survivors and, in turn, how we can remind the world of this greatest of crimes and its consequences.
But Wiesel’s compassion and insight were not limited to the Holocaust, although that is a subject vast enough to command the attention of several lifetimes. Rather, he used his personal experience of loss, pain and rebirth as a lens through which he empathized with and fought for victims of injustice everywhere.
Among them were the third of world Jewry trapped in the Soviet Union. Denied access to their heritage and made convenient scapegoats in Cold War regional power plays, many Jews lost all connection to their identity save their surname and the discrimination that it attracted.
His 1966 book The Jews of Silence brought the plight of the refuseniks into popular consciousness with its thunderously gentle call to action: “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”
There are still nearly 1 million Jews in the eight countries of the former Soviet Union in which World ORT operates, but future generations are threatened by intermarriage rates which are hurtling past the 90 percent mark, according to some observers — and the silence is deafening. Twenty years after The Jews of Silence was published, 250,000 people rallied in Washington, D.C. in support of Soviet Jews, leading to mass emigration to Israel and beyond. Twenty years from now, there may be precious few left of the 1.7 million Jews who remain.
This is where ORT comes in.
Through its network of 16 pluralistic day schools, ORT has built a reputation for academic excellence which, together with its superb facilities and career-savvy focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), attracts thousands of students from families which are not affiliated to the community. But there is more at play than the head start in life that an ORT education can give ambitious Jewish boys and girls.
There is no doubt that the countries of the former Soviet Union provide a more hospitable environment for Jews, but it takes more than a decade or two to eradicate the prejudices of centuries. Parents appreciate being able to have their children in a safe, warm and nurturing environment where they will not be an isolated and vulnerable minority. And although many parents of Jewish children have little more knowledge of yiddishkeit than dim memories of their grandparents’ Seder, they still have a sense of the cultural commonalities that bind us.
Half a century ago, Wiesel noted that most of the Jews in the Soviet Union’s synagogues were not there to pray “but out of a desire to identify with the Jewish people — about whom they know next to nothing.” As vague as it may be, that pull of peoplehood is still powerful and finds celebratory expression in ORT schools’ Jewish studies programs and activities including weekend and summer camps and trips to Israel.
ORT students come home at the end of the day not only enthused by their schools’ first-class robotics, science and computer curricula but also enriched with Hebrew and a love of Israel. It is not uncommon for ORT alumni to pursue STEM studies at university before embarking on a career in high tech, sometimes in the “Start Up Nation.” And it is also not uncommon for students to re-introduce Jewish practice in their family homes, teaching their parents about Shabbat and chagim and so reversing what had seemed an inexorable slide into assimilation.
Such an impact is a tribute to the support ORT receives from Jewish Federations and friends, such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. As president of World ORT, I am proud of what we do in the FSU — and in Israel and 35 other countries. And I thank every contributor who makes our work possible.
With all the challenges facing our communities here in the United States, not to mention in Europe and Israel, it is all too easy to forget about the 1.7 million Jews in the former Soviet Union. ORT doesn’t. But if we are to inspire new generations to live as proud Jews and as independent, contributing citizens we desperately need more people to support our investment in the kind of cutting-edge education that attracts families teetering on the edge of assimilation.
Without our collective action, the future of the ORT network in the place where it is needed most is under threat. We cannot afford to remain silent.
Dr. Conrad Giles is the president of World ORT.