122-year-old ORT gets a boost from Silicon Valley

Discussing the Silicon Valley Web site, Green Smith said, "It's very easy to use and make changes. It's a Web site for non-techies that can allow ORT members to communicate locally while also bringing our news to a greater audience."

The site highlights news about Israel, Bay Area Jewish events and ORT initiatives. Green Smith also sends e-mails to members and others, directing them to the site and important news. In addition to acting as a resource, the site addresses important ORT goals — encouraging education and technology.

Founded in Russia in 1880, ORT is one of the world's largest non-governmental education and training organizations, supporting a network of schools and programs in almost 60 countries, including Israel, the former Soviet Union and the United States. Nearly 290,000 students are working toward self-sufficiency through technological or vocational education.

In North America, ORT originally became an acronym for Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training, as the group initially assisted Jewish trade schools and agricultural settlements.

In keeping with its current focus, the group changed the meaning of the acronym to Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training. The North American group has also been using the abbreviations WAORT, for Women's American ORT, as well as WAO.

In 1997-98, WAORT initiated the national mentoring program to develop leadership and enhance communications throughout the organization. Protégées are partnered with seasoned board members, who provide ongoing opportunities for learning and growth. The ultimate goals are to develop talented new leaders, build a strong commitment to the organization and an understanding of its mission, and deliver that message.

"Our leadership is a precious commodity and we are always looking for new ways to develop it to its fullest potential," said Cheryll Engell, lay co-chair of the program from the Chicago area. "Years ago, we had many layers of the organization, which provided a natural pecking order for mentoring. As the organization became more streamlined, we searched for alternative ways to identify and nurture leaders."

Every 18 months, members of the board are paired with nominated protégées to work on a specific project that is jointly developed and that embraces one or more of the three priorities of WAORT: fund-raising, outreach and communication.

From eight to 12 participants are chosen each year for the program. Many have come from the Bay Area, including current mentor Mara Kahn of Burlingame. Projects run the gamut from the tangible– like hosting events and building Web sites — to the more conceptual, such as growing membership and presence.

Kahn, a national board member, is currently working with a protégée in Southern California on a project to expand visibility in the San Fernando Valley. Like Green Smith and her mentor, Roz Vermut, who lives on Long Island, Kahn and protégée Sandy Curran are separated by geography. Much of their communication takes place via e-mail and phone. They will also meet face to face twice at annual meetings.

While Kahn's mentor relationship is just beginning, she is optimistic about its potential outcomes. "As part of another WAORT program I was paired with a mentor. I really used her. I ran a lot past her," she explained. "She became a sounding board and a safe place to try things out and see them through. "Now I look forward to passing on what I've learned."

Kahn is the former president of WAORT's Bay to Breakers chapter. She also serves as president of WAORT's Young Leadership Council and as outreach chair on the national board of directors.

The national mentoring program in which she's participating is apparently working. Although Green Smith graduated from the program nearly two years ago, she is still in touch with her mentor and very much involved in the organization. She has served as president of WAORT's Silicon Valley chapter and is currently acting as local financial secretary and area development consultant. She even gave a talk about building a local Web site at a national WAORT meeting.

"The relationship doesn't end with the end of the program. I still call Roz for insight and advice," Green Smith said. And while Vermut wasn't able to help Green Smith with the technological aspects of building a Web site, she did provide her with content and support for her project.

"I got confidence from Roz to do my project, and to become my chapter president at the same time. She shared her stories with me and told me that I could do this," Green Smith said. "I've grown — in ORT and in my life."