Although Iran was slowly modernizing during the 1950s, many Jewish Persian families lacked the necessary skills for employment. To combat poverty, vocational schools were established to teach skills and promote Jewish education, administered by the Alliance Israélite Universelle.
ORT was among the educational institutions at work in Iran.
From 1947 to 1950, ORT expanded its reach within the international community and began operating in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Iran. ORT, established in the 19th century in Russia, opened its first school in Iran in 1950, but it was not until the 1960s that a committee was formed.
The successes during the time ORT operated in Iran reflect the work that the educational organization continues to do around the world, putting to use money raised by chapters in Atlanta and other cities.
“One of the biggest challenges we continue to face is awareness,” ORT Atlanta Regional Director Jay Tenenbaum said. “In the past ORT was a social club, and women played an influential role in fundraising, through membership dues and events like bake sales, auctions and gift wrapping at the malls. Today, we need to spread the importance of ORT’s work to increase funding and attract more alumni.”
Once established in Iran, ORT offered two-year programs and established 16 trade schools in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz with classes in masonry, carpentry, mechanics and electrical installation. ORT also established programs for girls in dressmaking and embroidery.
By 1980 the schools had enrolled over 5,000 students.
Sharokh Nooromid was among the participants who enrolled in ORT’s technician program. Between 1966 and 1968, he learned skills in mechanics and obtained a degree through ORT’s two-year program.
“I really enjoyed the school. I studied hard, especially in drawing, and enjoyed participating in the workshops,” Nooromid said.
In 1972, Nooromid moved to Atlanta to continue his education as a technician. He enrolled at Georgia Tech and graduated in 1977 with a degree in civil engineering.
“I learned a lot in ORT, and when I came to the United States, I brought the skills I had obtained with me,” Nooromid said. ORT diplomas were recognized as qualifying students for any engineering college.
Many Jewish Persian students used their ORT skills to make aliyah.
After graduating from Georgia Tech, Nooromid wanted to return to Iran, but the Islamic revolution had started, and his parents advised him to remain in the United States. His parents escaped shortly after and moved to Rishon LeZion, Israel.
“They left everything they had and had to start from the beginning,” Nooromid said. If it had not been for ORT, he would have enlisted in the Sarvan (Iranian army ground forces) and fought in the Iran-Iraq War.
ORT radically transformed Iran’s Jewish community by providing skills that led to employment and preserved the community’s connection to Judaism. But Iran’s Islamic revolution changed everything.
Parvine Motamed became the first female director of ORT in Iran in 1970. During her stint, Motamed increased the number of women who obtained an education, led building renovations and established programs for secretarial employment.
“I wanted to provide classes that would engage the students. I began with courses in French and English and then established a program for teacher certifications,” Motamed said. The program allowed Jewish and non-Jewish students to return home and establish schools within their own communities.
Protests erupted in Iran in 1978 and continued into 1979, calling for an end to the shah’s reign.
“Tensions were extremely high, and it became dangerous for me to attend the school,” Motamed said. ORT was located amid numerous mosques and close to demonstrations that spread anti-Zionist propaganda. “Everyone advised me to leave, but I wanted to stay for the students. I don’t know if it was because I was courageous or I didn’t know any better, but I thought it my responsibility was to help protect the students.”
Iran in 1979 began to nationalize institutions, and ORT became a prime target. Motamed maintained control until 1980.
A pamphlet was brought to her one night stating that ORT’s director was a spy for Israel. The next night she and her husband escaped Iran. Iranian newspapers indicated that Motamed had been arrested.
“I’ve been with ORT for 60 years, and I have enjoyed every moment of it because I liked what I did and enjoyed creating new relationships with people,” Motamed said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the school in Tehran and its contents in 1980. Since then, ORT has not operated in Iran; the school was later renamed the Palestine Madrasa.
Professions have changed over the decades, and World ORT has adapted in those countries where it continues to operate. Instead of embroidery and dressmaking, classes now cover robotics, mass media and engineering.
“Governments across the world are asking World ORT if we can work with them to get the job done,” Tenenbaum said, “and we always say yes.”