Nestled in the midst of Jerusalem’s southern Givat Hamasua neighborhood sits one of the most prestigious high schools for gifted young students – the Israel Arts and Sciences Academy.Serving as a model of coexistence, academic excellence and leadership, this unique and innovative school is celebrating 25 years since first opening its doors to Israeli youth.In honor of this milestone, Robert Asher, founder and chairman of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education, the parent organization of IASA recently sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the past, present and future of academic excellence in Israel.Asher has dedicated his life to the US-Israel relationship and to promoting academic excellence in Israel and the US. In addition to serving as the chairman of the ICEE, he is also a past president and current chairman emeritus of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Asher is a member of the International Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and a past president of the Feinberg Graduate School, he holds an honorary doctorate from the institution.The foundations for academic excellence in Israel began across the ocean in Chicago where he was born and raised.“We were living in Chicago and were involved with the International Youth Music Festival in Vienna,” he recounted.“After five years we were invited to bring the festival to Israel and what we discovered was that Israel didn’t need another festival,” he joked. “But it did need musical instruments and teachers.”And so, Asher and Mary Jane, his wife, struck a deal with the Education Ministry to provide some 1,000 musical instruments to schools throughout the country.“Back then, in Israel having musical instruments was a big deal,” he said.Not resting with this one donation, Asher set out to expand and enrich music and arts programs. He partnered with Haim Zipori, one of the initiators of the community center movement in Israel and together they founded the now defunct organization MATAN to promote music and dance.Zipori then introduced Asher to the late Raphi Amram, and the trio began a three-week music and dance summer camp program for high school students.“What a renaissance man, and his trademark was shlekes [suspenders],” Asher said of Amram. “It was a fantastic partnership and he was such a force when it came to building the school.”But before it was a school, Asher said, “It started as a summer camp for three weeks in summer and soon after we added one week in Passover and another week during Hanukka.”Mary Jane served as program director, Amram was camp director and Asher helped provide the financial backing. MATAN was an enormous success and demand for the program quickly expanded.“We decided why not turn this into a school and so we went to Eliezer Shmueli who was education minister at the time and said, ‘We want to start a school for students in the performing arts,’” said Asher.Shmueli was interested in the idea but suggested to also incorporate the sciences, he explained – a revolutionary idea.“There was nothing in the US like it – an interdisciplinary school,” he said. “It was the first school of its kind in the West that we know of and it was founded on three principles: excellence, leadership and public service.”Founded on these three principles, IASA has grown to become one of the most sought after schools for young gifted minds in the country.Acceptance into the high school requires a nearly yearlong application and screening process, with only some 250 slots available for interested students.“We screen our students because we want youngsters who are very curious and willing to work hard,” said Asher. “My first question is always: ‘Is he a mensch? Is she a mensch?’ That’s what we are looking for – youngsters who have this level of intellect and curiosity have the ability to make the greatest contribution to Israeli society, but unless the path is shown to them it doesn’t necessarily happen.”In response to claims that the school is elitist, Asher said, “If you are talking about elite education then yes we are – but when you visit the school you see the map of Israel.”In fact, IASA boasts one of the most diverse student bodies, with secular and religious Jewish, Muslim and Christian students studying side by side, whether from the Center or the periphery. Furthermore, some 90 percent of pupils attend on scholarships guaranteeing that economic status is not an obstacle to education.“We have a rule, first get accepted and then we do everything we can to provide assistance to our students,” he said.Once accepted students are frequently challenged and provided the best educational opportunities, whether it be a class trip to CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland as part of enhanced physics studies or other similar educational opportunities in the arts and humanities.Another important pillar of the school’s founding vision, include community service, which all students are expected to participate and give back to their community in innovative ways.“We believe in values, we believe in community service – this is something now adopted, when we started it wasn’t there,” said Asher. “The average of the country in doing one year of public service in Israel before enlisting in the IDF is 2.8% and the average in our school is 40%.”Since its initial introduction into IASA 25 years ago, the notion of community service among students has spread throughout the Israeli education system. Last year former education minister Shai Piron introduced community service as one of the new criteria for eligibility to receive a matriculation certificate among high school students throughout the country.At the school however, this was always just a way of life, as is the feeling of harmony and unity among the students and the teachers that can’t be missed.“The extraordinary relationship between the teachers and students and the ability to bring values to the students is to me the essence of what this education is,” said Asher.Asher prided himself on the fact that the school’s initial graduates, today in their 30s and 40s are “in the upper echelons all throughout Israeli society.”Still, Asher explained that running such a unique school was a massive undertaking.Last year Prof. Nava Ben-Zvi, who has also dedicated her time to promoting academic excellence in Israel, was named chairwoman of the ICEE and was tasked with continuing the original vision and legacy of the school.“It is not an easy school to establish and not an easy school to operate, I give enormous credit to the principal and the team, who are really imbued with dedication – they have taken the original vision and they live it and believe in it and are so dedicated to it,” he said.In addition to the school, the ICEE, under Asher runs numerous other projects promoting academic excellence in Israel and the world.The center’s activities also include E2K (Excellence 2000) math and science programs that were specially developed by the ICEE to explore new math and science opportunities through engaging in fun research projects, mind-bending math problems and international competitions, puzzles and challenges. This unique STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program has served as a model for other schools in Israel and has been exported to other countries around the world.In addition, the ICEE operates the Excellence Educators Institute, which offers unique teacher training programs.Each year delegations of teachers visit Israel for training programs at the Israel Center for Excellence in Jerusalem.Teachers participate in lectures and presentations from Israeli educators, which is key to the development and success of the E2K program.“People accomplish things because they don’t know they can’t – that is really what education is and we must not stop a youngster from wherever he thinks he can go,” concluded Asher.