A potential Torah university

Jerusalem's College of Technology has produced thousands of graduates who immerse themselves in Torah, science and technology.

prof 248.88 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
prof 248.88
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
When the visionary, Vienna-born physicist Prof. Ze'ev Lev (William Low) established the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) 40 years ago with seven engineering students in an apartment building in the Bayit Vegan quarter, he dreamed of the day when there would be 400 or 500 students. Those familiar with his dream of teaching high-level science and engineering combined with Torah to modern Orthodox and haredi men doubt that Lev actually believed such a goal could be reached. Lev somehow foresaw that this combination was exactly what 21st-century Jerusalem would need to fight the decline in the number of modern Orthodox residents, the high poverty rate, the minimal levels of secular education in haredi families and the capital's need for a strong technological base. When Lev's former physics student at the Hebrew University, Prof. Joseph Bodenheimer, was named JCT's fourth president 16 years ago, that target had already been achieved, with 440 students in six buildings on the Givat Mordechai campus. Today, as he hands over the president's chair to eminent French-born mathematician Prof. Noah Dana-Picard, there are 3,000 students on campuses in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, and 17 buildings on the main Givat Mordechai campus alone. WHEN I interviewed him in 1993 upon his promotion from JCT rector to president (as I have interviewed the three presidents before him), I was impressed to find Bodenheimer sitting in the secretary's room rather than that of his predecessor, Dr. Yitzhak Nebenzahl (who needed the larger room due to a physical disability). Bodenheimer explained that the very pinched financial situation of the college required the president to serve as an example of modesty, so he remained in the small room, with its simple office furniture, for 16 years. "It is very satisfying when a new student tells me that his father studied here," he says. Born in Cambridge, he moved with his parents to London during World War II and then in 1950 to Israel, where his father worked as an analytical chemist. After religious high school studies and military service, he was offered a prestigious Fulbright fellowship - one of three in Israel among 300 candidates - but Bodenheimer was hesitant to spend four years in the US. His father sent him to Lev at the Hebrew University for advice. "He said that if I was good enough to win a Fulbright fellowship, I should go to HU, which was as good as any US university. I could always do post-graduate work in the US, Prof. Lev insisted." In the end, Bodenheimer earned all three degrees at HU and did post-doctoral work at the Kings College in London, where he studied electrooptics during its early years as a discipline. After his return with his wife and three children, "Prof. Lev called me into his HU office and said he was opening a unique new institution and that he wanted me to set up the physics lab. He was concerned that I might not find a position here after my work abroad, as there were very few available job slots. He was intent on enabling national religious and haredi yeshiva students to study engineering in a Torah framework." SURPRISINGLY, all the leading rabbis gave their approval after Lev - "a genius and an incredible thinker" - agreed to call the religious studies component a beit midrash rather than a yeshiva, and since then, no rabbinical prohibitions or boycotts have ever been declared against JCT. "Machon Lev" had a hard time cobbling together the necessary lab equipment (some was borrowed from HU), and held classes in a nearby yeshiva high school. By the time it moved to the Givat Mordechai campus, Bodenheimer was a senior lecturer in electrooptics and had headed the department for eight years. The college was initially run under the aegis of Bar-Ilan University, which awarded its own degrees until the Council for Higher Education authorized JCT to issue its own bachelor's of science degrees in 1977. Undergraduate students learn from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week. Lev, who died suddenly of a stroke five years ago at the age of 82, "would have been very happy about the way his college has developed," says its outgoing president. "He reluctantly agreed that the Hebrew name of the men's college be Machon Lev in his honor because we said it would help advance the school." Bodenheimer headed the development team at JCT's Research Center for Driving Safety and Injury that produced the MAROM system for detecting tailgating and speeding by vehicles on the road. He worked with Zvi Weinberger, an electrooptics expert who became the third president of the college. The computerized distance-speed monitor uses invisible infrared beams and a built-in video camera to record images of the license plates of drivers who exceeded speed limits or commit other traffic violations. It has been tested, proven successful and applied in several countries but Israeli traffic court judges were suspicious that it would take some of their power away by providing incontrovertible evidence, so it was never adopted here. The company that produced it ran out of money and closed. Nevertheless, says Bodenheimer, it saved many Israeli lives when it was tested. Weinberger, who never earned a Ph.D. but with his self-taught electrooptics expertise never needed one, left his mark as president by "strengthening the beit midrash and the religious studies' staff, while Nebenzahl - Israel's former State Comptroller - "gave it international recognition and attracted foreign donors." BODENHEIMER declared in his first Jerusalem Post interview as president that he would open a similar college for religious women - and he kept his promise, even though the idea aroused much opposition from some board members and rabbinical staffers. Today, JCT's Machon Tal produces superb graduates in its academic nursing school plus most of the fields in which the men at Machon Lev win undergraduate degrees - electronic engineering, applied physics/electrooptical engineering, medical engineering, software engineering, computer sciences, computational chemistry, industrial engineering, managerial accounting and information systems, technical management and marketing. This year, Machon Lev introduced a master's in business administration (MBA) that includes a heavy dose of Jewish business ethics. The electrooptics engineering program reputedly produces graduates comparable to those of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The nursing school is part of Machon Tal's "campus" of rented buildings in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul quarter. Machon Naveh, on the main Givat Mordechai campus, is an evening college for haredi men, most of whom study in yeshivot during the day, while Machon Lustig is a haredi women's institute for technology and management in Ramat Gan. There is also a preparatory program for men with weak backgrounds in scientific subjects and Torah studies, an on-campus technological yeshiva high school for 200 boys and special programs for French and English speakers. THE SOUND of French is very frequent on the men's campus, says Bodenheimer, since numerous Jewish families who feel uncomfortable with the growing anti-Semitism in France have sent their sons to study in the hope that they themselves will follow. During the huge wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union, JCT's preparatory program accepted thousands of young men who didn't have a strong Torah background, but today, most of them are haredim who in yeshivot learned no English, science, computer studies or advanced math; today, there are similar efforts to help Ethiopian immigrants attend the college. JCT also has a strong academic (Atuda) program run in cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces for 18-year-olds who will serve as officers and professionals for a minimum of six years after completing a four-year degree (for the sake of full disclosure, one of my sons joined the Atuda there and graduated three years ago in electrooptics and is now beginning JCT's MBA program, while the other, 18, has just started electronic engineering studies as an Atuda candidate). Bodenheimer acknowledges that modern Orthodox yeshiva high schools generally encourage their pupils to go into hesder yeshiva programs or pre-military yeshiva studies rather than apply to the Atuda. AFTER THE shocking Madoff affair hit Jewish philanthropists very hard, Bodenheimer concedes that "it's harder to get new donors. We have to be more creative. Donations used to comprise 15 percent of the operating budget, but we have cut it down to half, as I worried that if there were a financial crisis abroad, it would hurt our functioning. But our development budget is almost entirely dependent on donations, so there is less development now." Still, JCT has been given rights to adjacent land for significant expansion of the main campus, and has been promised land a few kilometers away as a permanent campus for Machon Tal. "The moment we get the land, there will be donors. Already, Machon Tal is the largest non-coed producer of female engineers in the world." Bodenheimer praises Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who will speak at the JCT 40th anniversary dinner this week and is in regular contact with the college. "I think he has the necessary understanding of what we do and what is needed. He did a lot of homework when he was head of the opposition at City Hall. He is a businessman who knows how to develop the city." A new poll shows that most young haredi men want to earn an academic degree in a religious college so they can support their families, even though studying Torah remains the ideal. "They understand that without an academic degree, their salaries will be low. Many live in abject poverty. The average haredi couple have eight children, and there is a heavy burden on the women, who run the home, give birth and go out to work. As there are few available teaching positions, they have to learn other professions. But the average husband still goes to kollel to study Torah," says Bodenheimer. "There is an uneven yoke." The prominent billionaire industrialist from Tefen, Eitan Wertheimer, established the Halamish program, now based at JCT, that awards scholarships to the most-promising haredi yeshiva students. Their rabbis give individual permission to participate, and some are sons of prominent rabbis. But there are about 100,000 haredi yeshiva students from age 20 to 60, so academic study is not yet a 'danger' to their yeshivot. Going to college, getting a degree and earning a living is common among haredim in the US, but not yet here, Bodenheimer notes. Several gender-separated programs around the country grant degrees to haredi men and women; they are not independent institutions of higher learning but a "platform for universities" who grant their own degrees. "The Council for Higher Education is in a quandary about recognizing haredi institutions." But Bodenheimer does not regard the Jerusalem College of Engineering - officially a branch of Haifa's Technion located across from the JCT campus and with some 800 male and female students - as competition. "One of its founders, former Jerusalem municipal treasurer Uzi Wechsler, has said his ideal is to reach the level of our college." JCT is aware of the current difficult job market, and has a full-time staffer who coordinates job placement for graduates and a program that enables current students to work part-time in Jerusalem companies. It closed down PATIR, JCT's commercial arm, in 1993, due to the college's inability to offer financial support when the startups' official status ended after two years. Today, there are a handful of startups on the JCT campus staffed by some of its lecturers and professors or graduates as well as outsiders. "We want startups here. It's very healthy that our people can do research and development," Bodenheimer states. Although Dana-Picard will certainly pave JCT's future in his own way, Bodenheimer has a proposed target for the college 16 years ahead. "I hope it will become a Torah-based university - even if it won't officially be called a university. I predict it will have a student body of at least 10,000 and offer degrees in the natural and social sciences as well. Due to ups and downs in the economy, it shouldn't offer only engineering and exact science studies. JCT has contacts with religious teachers seminaries, and they would become affiliated and offer bachelor's degrees rather than just teaching certificates. "They don't have to be on our main campus," he adds. Dana-Picard, who was chosen from some 20 candidates for the presidency and was an outstanding head of JCT's mathematics department, "does not have intense management experience, but he knows this institution very well and can learn administration on the job," concludes Bodenheimer. "I will go on sabbatical for a while and return to teach some physics/electrooptics courses at Machon Lev and Machon Tal." A room has already been set aside for him as an office. "I would like to JCT to promote even more Torah and derech eretz - Jewish learning combined with gainful employment. Each one advances the other, and together they bring unity," he concludes.