Tailoring workshop sponsored by ORT, Sighet Marmației, Romania, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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The Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia (Obshchestvo Remeslennago i Zemledelecheskago Truda Sredi Evreev v Rossii). In the late nineteenth century, a number of attempts were made by Jews in the Russian Empire to found organizations that could promote economic and occupational change for Jews. The tsarist regime was very wary about allowing the formation of an organization that promoted change, but various attempts were made to circumvent the legal restrictions.

Students and teachers in a dressmaking course sponsored by ORT, Iaşi, Romania, ca. 1939. The Yiddish inscription on the blackboard reads, “Work is nothing to be ashamed of.” (YIVO)

The initiator of ORT was Nikolai Bakst (1842–1904), a Jewish professor of medicine who lived and worked in Saint Petersburg. In 1880, with a group of rich and communal-minded individuals, he set up a handicrafts fund administered by a provisional committee to support craft education in schools and other means to encourage Jews to become artisans and agriculturalists. “Productivization” of the Jews had long been a goal of maskilim, but rapid changes in the Russian economy led many to feel that there was an urgent need for economic reorganization of the Jewish community; it was also felt that this need could be met only in an organized and large-scale framework.

It was not until 1905 that the organization was able to receive approval of revised bylaws and to operate legally with headquarters in Saint Petersburg. Affiliated branches were permitted in almost every city with a substantial Jewish population. Membership rose rapidly, as did the funds available for disbursement. There were many discussions within the society as to the best way to use the funds it raised. Some supported grants to support worthy individuals and projects; others called for working toward large-scale changes in the community.

The goals of developing artisanship in a period of industrialization and encouraging agricultural pursuits in a time of urbanization and emigration may appear somewhat quaint in retrospect. However, even though the activities of ORT did not, in fact, transform the patterns of Russian Jewry, they did enable a great number of individuals to improve their lives and the image of Jews in the general Russian population. ORT’s efforts to stimulate the development of economic cooperatives and self-help among Jews had a particularly positive impact.

Unemployed people, craftsmen and artisans can get machines through ORT, with the financial support of their relatives abroad." Russian poster. Artwork by Mikhail Dlugatch. Printed in Moscow, 1930. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.625. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

During World War I, ORT was very active in developing labor exchanges to help unemployed Jews and refugees find productive work and means for support for themselves and their families. In many cases, ORT helped set up workshops. After the war, ORT began to work outside of Russia in the framework of a union of ORT societies, and ultimately the center moved outside of Russia to Paris and later Berlin. After the establishment of the USSR, ORT was able for some time to assist in programs to transform Jews into farmers and skilled industrial workers. The Soviet ORT cooperated with the ORT union abroad and was involved in a wide range of activities, including assistance to settlements in Birobidzhan and the importation of agricultural machinery and technical tools from the West, along with various educational activities. In the late 1930s, however, activities were curtailed, and in 1938 the Soviet ORT was liquidated.

During the interwar period, ORT was also active in Poland and in the other newly independent states of Eastern Europe as well as elsewhere. It operated in close conjunction with other philanthropic frameworks such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and had a major impact on the ability of East European Jewish communities to adjust to new political and economic conditions. Even after the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, ORT continued activities in the ghettos, though in a much-curtailed manner. After the war, ORT was established again in Poland, where it opened a network of schools. In 1949, however, it was stopped by order of the Polish government. ORT resumed activity in Poland in 1957 but was closed down again in 1967. It also had programs in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ORT “returned to its roots,” setting up schools in Russia and Ukraine.

Suggested Reading

Arieh Munitz, Irgune “Ort” bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot ba-shanim 1917–1938 (Tel Aviv, 1980/81); ORT, 1880–2000: Facing the Future (London, 2000), in English, Hebrew, and Russian; Jack Rader, By the Skill of Their Hands: The Story of ORT (Geneva, 1960?), also available at http://archive.ort.org; Leon Shapiro, The History of ORT: A Jewish Movement for Social Change (New York, 1980).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 21, ORT Vocational School (Vilna), Records, 1921-1939 (finding aid); RG 252, World ORT Union, Records, 1923-1955; RG 263, Israel Okun, Papers, ca. 1920-1941; RG 29, Vilna, Collection, 1822-1940; RG 335,2, American Joint Reconstruction Foundation, Records, 1920-1939; RG 380, American ORT Federation, Records, 1922-1960; RG 47, ORT Society, Vilna, Records, 1898, 1920-1940; RG 701, I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers’ Union, Records, 1903-1970s; RG 713, Herman Bernstein, Papers, 1897-1935 (finding aid).