American ORT is Established to Meet World ORT’s Fundraising Needs

Letter from Leon Bramson

Letter to Herbert Lehman, written by Bramson upon his arrival in New York, April 17, 1922.

From its inception, it was clear that fundraising was necessary for ORT’s success. In the first few years of its existence, the number of Russian donors exceeded 10,000 – from small to large contributors. It also received money from the central government. But with the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the financial needs for Jewish war victims skyrocketed and fundraising initiatives were intensified abroad. The 1915 ORT budget included a one-time grant of 36,600 rubles from Jewish workers in the United States earmarked for the Relief-Through-Work Program.

Around that same time, there were murmurings among ORT leaders to dispatch a delegation to New York to reach out to Russian-Jewish émigrés for help. The Russian Revolution in 1917 put a hold on these efforts, but it was reinstated when, in 1922, Leon Bramson and Dr. Aaron Syngalowski, a renowned Yiddish orator and thinker, went to the United States to establish American support. It worked. The American ORT Federation was formally launched in June of that year, with Jacob Panken as its first president and Louis B. Boudin as vice president. Both were associated with the U.S. labor movement. However, American ORT also appealed to other major groups within the U.S. Jewish community – from industrialists to intellectuals, including Russian immigrants, writers, lawyers, and labor union leaders.

Soon after its creation, the new organization established the ORT Reconstruction Fund to raise money to help Eastern European Jews still recovering from WWI. It also received substantial financial support from U.S. Jewish organizations (including the Joint Distribution Committee and the Workmen’s Circle). American ORT also attracted the interest of Jewish-American dignitaries such as New York’s Governor/Senator Herbert H. Lehman and Albert Einstein.

American ORT’s Early Organization and Focus

Members of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) of New York, Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell University

In the early years, American ORT organized itself into organizational divisions. For example, one of the earliest and largest was the Labor Division, which was supported by about 100 unions. Among them were the Garment Workers and Clothing Workers of America; the Plastics and Novelty Union; the Bakers Union; and the Restaurant Workers Union.

Of particular interest to American supporters in the ’20s and ’30s was the Tool Supply Campaign known in Yiddish as the Gezeig (machines). It was a creative initiative where people in the U.S. could purchase equipment and tools for designated Jewish friends and relatives in Russia and Eastern Europe. In fact, between 1928 and 1931, ORT received and successfully acted upon more than 10,000 Gezeig applications.

Chapter 3: Women Proudly Carry the ORT Banner