For the JC September 2017
Avi Ganon for the JC by Jenni Frazer
It’s an improbable journey, from someone who barely scraped through his matriculation exams to chief executive of the world’s largest Jewish educational organisation, but Avi Ganon, the new director-general of World ORT, has done it — and along the way has been a professional footballer, a mainstay of the Israeli navy, and a diplomat.
Ganon, who won’t mind being called a “silver fox”, has been in his latest role in ORT’s London headquarters for just a month. But he has worked for the organisation in a variety of roles, principally in Russia, for more than 15 years, and willingly admits that ORT is in his blood.
But nothing in his background suggests that this was how he was going to turn out. He was born in a working-class neighbourhood in Beersheva, Israel’s southernmost big city, to Moroccan parents who arrived in Israel in 1962. His father was a safety inspector and his mother worked in the dining room of the city’s Makhteshim Agan factory.
“I had nothing to do with education when I was growing up”, he says. “I just played football”. He played in the Beersheva streets but also ended up playing for the Hapoel Beersheva club, until it was time for him to go in the army.
In fact the IDF decided to put Ganon in the navy, and he spent his military service both on board ship and training new navy recruits in engineering and technology.
Only after the navy — and, as he cheerfully admits, sustained nagging from his mother and father —“Jewish parents!” — did Ganon begin to engage with education. “I realised that I didn’t have any alternative. I needed to sit and learn.”
So Ganon enrolled at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev and studied social behaviour and economics. And straight after university he applied, via the Prime Minister’s Office, to work as an Israeli diplomat in the embassy in Moscow.
In fact his introduction to Russia came a year earlier, in 1997, when he went to Moscow as a Hebrew teacher in the capital’s ORT school. “A year after that, I joined the diplomatic service and worked in the embassy from 1998 to 2002, responsible for all Jewish education in the Former Soviet Union”.
And he learned Russian. He spent two years with a private teacher and now regards himself as a fluent speaker. With a grin he recounts how he’s able to have bantering conversations with the mainly Russian cashiers in Israeli supermarkets, and how they are astonished that an Israeli of plainly Moroccan heritage can speak their language. “I didn’t just learn Russian”, says Ganon. “I learned the culture, the history, the behaviour”.
This was important for his next post — director-general of ORT in the Former Soviet Union. He served in the FSU for five years and returned to Israel in 2008, again working with ORT at senior levels. Just three months ago he was offered the London job, and Ganon has big plans.
“I regard ORT as the Ministry of Education for the Jewish world”, he says. “And I want to get to a situation where every head of community, when planning Jewish education, will think about ORT as the first priority. We have 137 years of experience, we have the programmes, we have the knowledge, and I want to share it.”
There are, as yet, no ORT schools in Britain but Ganon is undeterred. He hopes to offer existing Jewish schools “a new track of study inside their schools. Not every kid is going to become a lawyer. We can provide educational tools for all levels of student, from the excellent to the weakest”.
He hopes, additionally, to approach the largely untapped Russian Jewish community in the UK and offer them programmes and ideas. Ganon recognises that the biggest challenge on his hands is fighting assimilation, and relishes the irony that in many countries in which ORT works, its schools are so successful that non-Jewish parents are clamouring to get their children in, too.
So Ganon has a lot of work ahead of him, and will spend two weeks out of every month travelling and visiting ORT’s work in 40 countries. In his rare downtime he no longer plays football, but is instead a keen marathon runner. His latest time was three hours and 48 minutes — but he hopes to improve on that in the 2019 London Marathon. He will be running for ORT, naturally.