An unusual sight

Women graduates from Machon Tal’s electro-optics degree are making their mark on the industry

An unusual sight (photo credit: Courtesy)
An unusual sight
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Joe van Zwaren saw a group of young religious women perusing the exhibits at Optical Engineering 2012 in March, he thought it was an optical illusion.
Women are ordinarily scarce at the biannual conference anyway, but he’d certainly never seen this demographic in the 25-plus years he’s helped organize the photonics networking event at Bar-Ilan University. Overcome with curiosity, van Zwaren approached the group.
“I was so struck by seeing religious women – and not just one or two, but about 12 – that I thought I was in the wrong place and I started asking questions,” he says.
The young ladies explained that they were from Machon Tal, the women’s division of the Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. At both schools, students split their schedule between advanced religious and applied science courses.
Van Zwaren’s double-take illustrates the noticeable difference this relatively new program is making in scientific fields such as electro-optics, a traditionally male-dominated scientific discipline that uses lightrelated physics and engineering principles for new technologies in electronics, communications, medicine, data processing, energy and defense.
Elbit Systems Electro-optics R&D Manager Rami Finkler, chairman of the Optical Engineering Chapter of the Society of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in Israel, and initiator of the Optical Engineering event, estimates that 10 percent of the optics community in Israel is female.
Among the most prominent names are Klara Reshef of the IDF; Ariela Donval, chief technology officer of KiloLambda; Silvi Wachtel of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems; Hebrew University Prof. Renata Riesfeld; and Leah Boehm, chief scientist at Israel Aerospace Industries and a new member of the Council for Higher Education.
Boehm says IAI does not yet employ any Machon Tal alums, but she singles out JCT as “one of the better schools we have in electro-optics in the country.
We have quite a lot of Machon Lev graduates at IAI and many others have their own successful startups and do well in the army and air force.”
She spends many Fridays on her own time speaking to high school students about opportunities in laser and fiber-optics and is particularly eager for girls to consider entering this ever-growing field. She’s enthusiastic about Machon Tal adding national-religious women to the pool of candidates.
“I really encourage that a whole lot, because you can work in this environment and keep being dati [religious]. Here at IAI we have some religious women, wearing long skirts, working in electrical engineering and materials. Everybody appreciates them because of their qualifications and there are no difficulties that I can see,” says Boehm.
JCT was the first Israeli institution of higher education to establish a faculty of electro-optics, and its graduates over the past 40 years have contributed to the development of such products as photovoltaic cells to produce solar energy, and lasers and sensors for telecommunications and surgery. They’re in key positions in the defense industry and specialized IDF research and at companies such as El-Op, Orbotech, Ophir Optronics, Elbit, Applied Materials and Tower Semiconductors.
About 15 years ago, JCT’s then-president, Joseph S.
Bodenheimer, himself a full professor of electro-optics at the college, decided to open a women’s division.
At the time, says Machon Tal director Abba Engelberg, the idea was not acceptable to some of the institution’s rabbinic faculty. Bodenheimer overcame the opposition by situating the school in Beit El, far from the men’s campus in Givat Mordechai. Two years later it moved to Jerusalem.
“We had 20 girls the first year and 10 the second,” says Engelberg, but about 80 women registered when the school rented a few rooms in the northern neighborhood of Neveh Ya’acov, necessitating a relocation to larger premises in Givat Shaul in 1999.
MACHON TAL has become a magnet for graduates of national-religious high schools looking for an Orthodox environment in which to earn a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences. About one quarter of the students come from more haredi (ultra-Orthodox) backgrounds.
Computer science was the first discipline offered at Machon Tal, followed by accounting, marketing, industrial engineering and electro-optics.
“It had nothing to do with the ‘appropriateness’ of these fields for women,” says Engelberg. “To get degree programs approved in this country is not a simple thing. It involves working very hard with all kinds of bureaucracies and overcoming the jealousy of other universities. So it was only natural for JCT to offer at Machon Tal the degrees they had already worked very hard to get approved at Machon Lev.”
Indeed, adding its newest program for nursing took a long time, and the college has been trying to get a physical therapy department approved for more than five years.
Nevertheless, electro-optics has proved quite successful, says Prof. Yitzchak Leichter, head of electrooptics at Machon Tal. Male and female students learn the same material from the same lecturers.
“We decided we don’t want to be on a lower level than the men, although girls don’t always study physics in high school,” says Leichter. Prep courses and tutors are available for those who need to catch up. “And I must tell you: The girls are much, much better students. They take the same courses and the same exams, but their marks are usually higher.”
Eighty-eight women have finished electro-optics degrees at Machon Tal, and 62% of graduates are working in the field. “They’re in companies like Real Imaging, Teva, Elbit and Lumus,” he says. One works at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, a few are in the army and some work in the Israel Patent Office.
In addition, 21% are studying for higher degrees at Israeli universities, one third of them at the doctoral level. The rest are job-hunting or took time off to start families.
“Some are interested in research and at least two have gotten prestigious scholarships and fellowships,” says Leichter.
Machon Tal alumna Natalie Fardian Melamed is finishing her master’s studies in Prof. Aharon Agranat’s optoelectronics lab in the department of applied physics at the Hebrew University. She’s the only one in her master’s class to have earned a scholarship for academic excellence for both years of study.
The 22-year-old newlywed says she fell in love with physics while attending Ulpana Meron near Safed, where her family immigrated from California when she was 10.
She was one of only four girls in her class of 80 to major in physics, and she knew this would be her career.
“I wanted to go into something I could apply, and what better than electro-optic engineering?” she says.
“When I finished national service, I went looking all over Israel researching the best place for me.”
She chose Machon Tal over better-known schools such as the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
“I really liked what they had to offer and it felt like a warm atmosphere. I chose the field with my mind and the place with my heart.”
Melamed earned her BSc degree in medical engineering in 2009, making the dean’s list all four years and winning the Rector’s Prize at graduation.
According to Leichter, the gender-separate campus keeps the female students from being intimidated or overwhelmed by the preponderance of male students in the field. “This has resulted in their achieving excellent results and breaking through into previously male-dominated areas of employment.”
Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Anat Zohar, author of Higher Order Thinking in Science Classrooms and former director of pedagogical affairs for the Education Ministry, argues that gender segregation – though she is not against it – offers no evident educational advantage.
“There were many studies in the 1980s and early 1990s that claimed to have evidence that it’s better for girls to be separated for math or physics classes, but a few years later when the same sets of data were reanalyzed with more advanced statistical methods, all the effects disappeared,” she says, citing a September article in Science magazine, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.”
“It may seem women do better in these classes,” she explains, “but if we analyze background variables we see that very often there is a self-selective process, and the populations studying separately aren’t representative of the whole population.”
Nevertheless, Zohar says, “I’m definitely for Orthodox young women having the opportunity to study science at the highest level, and if their religious beliefs make it necessary for them to study separately, that’s fine. It is certainly better to have a separate institution than to have no access to that type of education.”
She adds that in biology, medicine and chemistry classes in Israeli colleges and universities, there are equal numbers of men and women and sometimes more females. But in math, physics and computer science women are still a small minority.
Naomi Neiman (not her real name), a senior imaging engineer at one of Israel’s major defense sector companies, earned a PhD in optics at Tel Aviv University when she was in her 40s. She, too, is national-religious.
“Everybody at a certain time has to confront the real world, but I think it’s fantastic that Machon Tal allows young women to continue in a way they’re comfortable with and then eases them into the workplace,” she says.
Melamed, who recently spoke to current Machon Tal applied physics students about her decision to earn a doctorate and go into academia, stands out in the lab not only for her academic prowess but also for her gender and religious orientation.
“Being a woman and religious are unusual in this field,” she admits. “I’m the only religious female in my lab, and in the whole class there are three girls out of 40 guys.”
But she feels no conflict with her lifestyle. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s even easier than going to a nine-to-five job. I have a freer, more flexible schedule as a researcher, so it’s very comfortable for now and in the future. It’s just a matter of time until more girls go into it.”
Likewise, Neiman sees no barriers to religious women.
“I think [optics] is a great field with tremendous opportunities, and I find it strange that more women haven’t gone into it,” she says. “In scientific fields, people don’t really relate to whether you’re religious or not. Science is the key and everyone respects each other.”
Both female and male electro-optics students at JCT study classical and modern physics, optics, mathematics, computers and electronics. Students choose to specialize in optronics, medical engineering, micro-electronics or computers.
Fourth-year students complete a final project to strengthen their practical skills in research and development.
One example Engelberg mentions was devised in answer to the problem of students who score poorly on their pre-college psychometric exam and send their ID with someone to take the test on their behalf a second time. The advanced reader created by Yael Dvir and Yiska Steinberger could detect an impostor by comparing the details and dots entered on the first and second test forms.
Students may do an in-school project or opt for a corporate internship, which gives them wider practical experience as well as a greater chance of employment in industries developing lasers and other light sources, photoelectric light detectors, electro-optic light modulation, holography, devices for television photography, night vision devices and computer assisted lens design.
“The girls always choose the hard way by going to a company once or twice a week,” Leichter says with a smile. “They want to be the best.”