Exclusive: Azrieli foundation to double university fellows program

"The idea was to support the best and brightest students in Israel and students coming from abroad," says Foundation Chairwoman and CEO Naomi Azrieli.

 Students at Hadassah college (photo credit: Courtesy)
Students at Hadassah college
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Azrieli Foundation plans to expand its university fellowship program in Israel, more than doubling its financial commitment as well as the number and scope of fellowships.
“The idea was to support the best and brightest students in Israel and students coming from abroad,” Naomi Azrieli, the foundation’s chairwoman and CEO, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday. “This is the only natural resource that Israel has: the brains of its people, and if we can support and encourage even greater excellence in this area we would be doing something for the state, the nation and the people.”
For seven years, the Azrieli Fellows Program has funded post-docs studies for local and international students in Israel, focusing on sciences, education and architecture.
Starting next year, the program will double the number of fellowships in science to 10 a year, and expand the eligible fields into the humanities and the social sciences.
Instead of selecting roughly 16 new students a year, it will choose 30 a year. Within a few years, the foundation will be supporting 70 fellows at a time in the multi-year program.
At that point, its commitments will rise from the $1.2 million-1.5m. it now spends a year to $3.5m. In its first seven years, the foundation spent $6.5m. on 111 fellows.
The foundation will also provide junior faculty fellowships at Israeli universities, which will come with a commitment from the universities to consider fellows for tenure track position at the end of three years.
The program addresses some of the major challenges Israel’s higher education system faces. Though renowned for its academic excellence, Israeli academia suffered through what has come to be known as the “lost decade” between the years 2000 and 2009, when the government sharply cut the budget of the higher-education system.
This led to the brain drain that saw leading scientists and scholars leave in search of opportunities abroad and significantly harmed research at Israeli institutions.
The past four years have seen the implementation of a multi-year reform for higher education by the Planning and Budgetary Committee of the Council for Higher Education, which aims to reverse the brain drain and recruit young scientists back to key research and teaching positions in leading Israeli universities.
The Azrieli fellowships boost those efforts.
Bringing international students to Israel helps them form important bonds and networks with Israeli academic society.
“This is part and parcel of how we feel – Israel is a regular country with a lot to offer, and students should not be discouraged from coming here because of what they read in the newspaper,” said Azrieli.
It is important to the Azrieli family that the students not only have excellent academic credentials, but have a communal outlook. The fellowship includes volunteering requirements.
They bring the fellows from all the disciplines together, which sometimes results in surprising collaborations.
“You’ll have an electrical engineer talking to someone who focuses on early childhood education and an architect,” said Azrieli. “It’s been one of the most interesting ripple effects, where these discussions help researchers in totally different fields solve a problem.”
Two of the fellows, a psychologist and an electrical engineer, had such useful insight into each other’s’ work that they ended up publishing papers based on a discussion they had at one of the meetings, she said.
On Thursday night, the Foundation held its annual gala evening in Tel Aviv, hosting the 17 PhD and postdoctoral students who joined the program this year.
Among the PhD fellows are Liran Ben-Moshe, a student in marine geosciences at the University of Haifa; Yuval Peled, studying computer science at the Hebrew University; and Idan Frumkin, researching molecular genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Merlin Davies completed his PhD in experimental particle physics at the University of Montreal and came to Israel to do his postdoctoral research at Tel Aviv University.
Deborah Winter, who received her PhD from Duke University in North Carolina, is pursuing postdoctoral research in the field of computational biology at the Weizmann Institute.
The fellowship program is intended to compliment work with troubled youth as part of the foundation’s holistic approach to education.
“We’re about empowering people on all parts of the spectrum, so we’re going to do some something really meaningful for disadvantaged kids dropping out of school and also for the best and brightest kids, the best scientists and researchers,” Azrieli said.