COVID-19 bridges borders, race, religion at Ben-Gurion University

At Ben-Gurion University, researchers, students and staff created community to help get through coronavirus.

50 years of Ben Gurion University
 The novel coronavirus, SARSCoV-2, spread across the globe, reminding people that regardless of borders, race, religion or economic system, we are all interconnected, said Jeff Kaye, Ben-Gurion University’s Vice President for Public Affairs & Resource Development.
“We saw the crisis moving,” Kaye told The Jerusalem Post. “Each country knew it was about to fall victim to the virus and there was no real difference between what each community was or is experiencing. We all ended up sitting in our homes, locked down, in masks, and seeing this horrible disease outside and people dying.”
At BGU, where nearly 20,000 students are enrolled, classes quickly moved online at record speed, without missing a single day. Faculty and staff had to find new tools to communicate information and many students who moved out of their dormitories had to learn how to study from their parents’ home or with little or no support network. The university took immediate and bold action providing them with generous economic aid, even permitting them to cancel their dorm contract penalty-free.
But Kaye said that despite those challenges, BGU understood the greater role it had to play in fighting the pandemic, by leveraging its unique academic strengths.
“‘How are we going to mobilize our best and brightest to help the immediate, wider Israeli and overseas community?’ we asked ourselves. We understood this was not about us, but about everyone everywhere,” Kaye explained.
University president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz convened a meeting on March 11 – when people could still meet face-toface – at which he asked the school’s researchers, doctors and scientists to come up with ideas for how to help during the pandemic. Some 70 researchers turned up and 50 ideas were presented. To fund this research, the university quickly launched a fundraising campaign that raised over $400,000 from existing and new donors, even under conditions of great economic distress and panic. Kaye reported that donations are still coming in from all over the world, including from remote and unexpected places such as Columbia and even Malaysia.

“For once, the donors who contributed were not doing so because Israel was in trouble,” Kaye said. “Rather, they donated out of pride that the university that they had helped in the past was now about to help look for solutions that would be deployed globally. It was a classic case of role reversal.”
President Prof. Daniel Chamovitz: BGU Past and Future, May 2020
At the same time, Kaye said that BGU was keenly aware of how its supporters were hurting from the coronavirus and took significant action to provide comfort and solidarity, particularly pertinent as they witnessed the passing of several of its most loved board members who fell victim to the virus.
“The people who traditionally come to the board of governors meetings and are so generous, all of a sudden, they were vulnerable and on the defensive,” Kaye said, noting that BGU wanted to be a place for them to find connection.
The university has been holding webinars for its contributors, educating them about various aspects of the virus, but nothing comes close to the virtual Passover seder where Prof. Chamovitz invited donors into his home via a live feed, in what was described as one of the most moving events that anybody who participated can remember. BGU supporters from Argentina, US, Canada, Italy, the UK, Belgium and many other countries, joined the president in the holiday blessings, each with a glass of wine that they had prepared in advance. Many of them were older members of the BGU board who had been isolated for weeks, and it was reported that there was not a dry eye on the screen.
“It is our way of giving back to our community,” Kaye said.
On Sunday, BGU will hold what it hopes will be an unforgettable virtual experience to mark its 50th anniversary and celebrate its remarkable achievements. Much of the original program has been reimagined virtually, including the annual Zlotowski, Halperin, Kreitman lectures and the much anticipated State of the University address by Prof. Chamovitz.
But Kaye said that as phase I – the “altruistic, how can we help the wider community” – ends, he knows there will be a phase II, and this one will require looking inwards. BGU fears that the economic downturn, which resulted from months of lockdown and put more than 1 million Israelis out of work, will deter students from returning to their studies.
“If a whole cohort stops studying, that would be the death of the academic success we talked about,” he said. Kaye noted there is now an urgent need for funds for scholarships and daily living assistance for these students so that no one is left behind.
Finally, he said he believes that soon the emergency will be over. Then, “we will resume our plans to build our new North Campus, which will double our size and prepare the university for an ambitious strategic plan that will attract the most promising and exceptional young academics from Israel and overseas. This will be the next significant step toward a level of excellence unknown until now in Israel, and apt for the next 50 years.
Already, BGU is the fastest growing research university in the country.
“The coronavirus taught us all an incredible lesson: In the same way viruses don’t recognize borders or boundaries, we have to look and see the global community and our mutual responsibility,” Kaye continued. “This is true for the pandemic, the environment, food security, water and more. We have proven that when we pool our resources and our thoughts, we can do much more. I think BGU is doing that and will continue to be at the forefront.”
 
This article is written in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University.