By Stacey Dresner
Attending ORT High School in Moscow, Mikhail “Misha” Libkin says he received an excellent education in the field of technology. But he says the school also gave him an education in Jewish history and culture that “gave me and my family the possibility to find our own way in the Jewish community.”
Today, Libkin is national director of ORT Russia and a key leader of the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union.
Libkin will be speaking to groups in Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford, Conn. in the next week about ORT Russia and its work in schools in the former Soviet Union.
ORT was founded in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1880 to train impoverished Jews in job skills that would make them self-sufficient in a world that was quickly becoming more industrial. ORT began to spread to Europe, the U.S. and South America, but in 1938, ORT in Russia was shut down by Stalin.
ORT Russia started up again in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. And again, Jews were in need of instruction in the ever-expanding world of technology. In 1995, the ORT Technology School in Moscow opened followed by other schools and ORT centers in other FSU cities.
Today, ORT Russia provides technologically advanced education to attract Jewish families who, although mainly interested in ensuring a first-rate general and STEM-based education for their children, will also benefit from its schools’ Jewish education.
The ORT network includes seven schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and Samara. ORT also provides adult vocational programs at Vocational Training Centers, Career Centers and KesherNet Centers in Jewish communities.
And Misha Libkin is one of ORT Russia’s success stories.
Coming from a “very classical Jewish Soviet family” in Moscow, Libkin says his family was not free to practice Judaism under Soviet rule but that his parents and grandparents had strong Jewish identities.
Both of his parents shared stories with Misha about anti-Semitism they experienced during their childhoods.
“During my mother’s childhood, the anti-Semitism was so very strong,” he says. “The people around made her feel that being Jewish was so different.”
Starting in 1992, Libkin began attending Jewish summer camps – first Chabad camps, then camps run by other Jewish organizations.
When he was 13 years old, he and his parents began looking for a high school that would provide a strong education – specifically in technology — as well as a Jewish education.
“I was interested in math and technology since my young childhood. All of my parents and grandparents were engineers so I was very in interested in the IT field,” he explains. “When I started to feel some problems in my current school, my parents started to look for a new school for me. There were at least four Jewish day schools in Moscow. They checked all of them. When they came to ORT school they found that it was a very good education-based school for IT. It was one of the first schools in Russia with Internet. This was a very safe environment – I mean psychologically safe, physically safe — and there were Jewish studies but of a cultural level, which would …give me the knowledge of the history and tradition [of Judaism] and knowledge of the Jewish community in general.”
In the former Soviet Union, all of the schools are public schools, with the local ministry of education handling general studies. ORT schools are in such public schools but include two other tracks – technology and Jewish studies, funded by ORT, which provides state-of-the-art equipment, curriculum and teachers.
“If you send your kids to this school, they need to spend at least 3-5 hours per week for Jewish studies. You need to have a reason for this,” Libkin added. “So a majority of the kids in the school have Jewish roots.”
Jim Lodge, vice president of strategy and business development for World ORT, explained the dual track of the ORT schools this way:
“They come for the robotics and they go home with robotics but Shabbat as well.”
After graduating from the ORT high school in 2000, Libkin worked for ORT in the former Soviet Union as an IT technician both during and after he attended college.
He says ORT Russia has changed his life.
“First, this was the first school where I had access to real IT,” he said. “The school gave me the opportunity to work with modern equipment…and gave me the skills to work on a project — to create the idea, to present the idea, to bring it to a working model and to develop the solutions for problems. It’s a very different approach than you can find in a typical Russian school. Practical – but on a high level and very democratic.”
And his ORT school’s emphasis on Jewish studies helped to transform Misha into a Jewish leader.
He co-chairs Limmud Moscow, the largest Limmud program outside of the United Kingdom; he has led Russian Jewish young adults on missions to Holocaust sites and on numerous Birthright Israel trips; and he has participated in leadership programs such ROI Community: A Schusterman Initiative and JDC’s Knafaim Program.
Married with two small children, ages 3 and 18 months, he says he wants them to have a strong sense of their Judaism.
“I want them to be organically Jewish – to have the Jewish values. I want Judaism to be a part of their lives,” he said. “Nobody knows what will happen, but I will do everything to save the Jewish identity of my family.”