Leaner, hipper ORT streamlines its organization

Sipping wine by the bay, sampling tuna tartare and Greek hors d'oeuvres and kibitzing with men are not traditionally associated with Women's American ORT.

But that's exactly what more than 100 Bay Area women did recently to celebrate a younger, hipper image for the 70-year-old charity.

The bayside event at San Francisco's Maritime Museum, as well as young leadership training and domestic violence prevention, are some new activities that have emerged since ORT streamlined its national operation more than a year ago.

ORT leaders felt the organization's many layers of administration had become cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. And the time required to feed its bloated bureaucracy scared away younger, working women.

So the leaders dissolved district and regional ORT boards, consolidated small local chapters and pared down the national executive council from 700 to 35 members.

"We've gone back to being chapter- and member-based rather than organizationally topheavy," said Mara Kahn, Bay Area chair of ORT's Young Leadership Initiative.

Women's American ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) numbers some 75,000 members nationally. Its volunteers raise funds for scientific and technological schools throughout the world, including 120 in Israel and several in the United States. They also provide job retraining for emigres, primarily from the former Soviet Union, and raise funds locally through such enterprises as a consignment shop and a self-published cookbook.

Like many of the old-line Jewish charities, Women's American ORT has relied on a traditional base of women who have made a career out of volunteer work. The return of women to the workplace during the last two decades has forced these organizations to come to grips with an aging membership base, making the recruiting of younger women a national priority.

ORT, and "a gamut of Jewish organizations that our parents belong to, are still viable, but what do we do to make sure they have a future?" Kahn, of San Mateo, said.

The Bay Area Young Leadership Initiative is one of a few new ORT programs seeded with resources freed up from the downsizing.

The five Bay Area Young Leadership chapters have attracted women in their 30s and 40s, who otherwise might not have joined ORT.

So far, the group has raised money for domestic violence programs, recruited other young members and done "whatever is necessary to energize young people," Kahn said.

Bay Area chapter members gathered recently to celebrate their work and shmooze during The Epicurean Voyage, a culinary event at the Maritime Museum.

"It was somewhat of a fund-raiser, but that was not the purpose. We wanted to show the bright new face of ORT as being attractive to people," Kahn said.

Nationally, the organizational downsizing has allowed ORT to make improvements to its New York headquarters that make it more accessible to chapter members. They can now dial New York with an 800 number or use ORT's interactive home page on the World Wide Web for information, questions and answers.

"The old knowledge [came] from the provincial leaders," and it took time for them to fly back from national conventions and the information to travel through all the branches before it reached the chapters, said Pepi Dunay, ORT vice president.

"We're just able to be more effective and take on new obligations."

In keeping with its most important mission, education, ORT has opened three Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union. Another in Odessa is slated to open soon.

Whether or not ORT impresses future leaders with its trimmer, user-friendly ways, members feel the change has reinvigorated their mission.

And more than 250,000 vocational, technical and day-school students at worldwide ORT schools are expected to see the results.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.