Finding innovation and identity in the Start-Up Nation

“I asked myself why I gave up on my heritage when I went to Israel,” he says. “When I returned, I wanted to connect to this side again.

Yossi Assayag, 36 From Casablanca, Morocco,  to Jerusalem, 2000 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yossi Assayag, 36 From Casablanca, Morocco, to Jerusalem, 2000
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yossi Assayag grew up in Morocco as one of 5,000 Jews among some 28 million Muslims. His mother and father worked at the local Jewish school as the secretary and accountant, respectively. His extended family made aliyah in the 1960s, but Assayag’s father, the youngest son, remained in Morocco with his widowed mother.
Assayag and his siblings had a good life.
“We were traditional, but we didn’t wear our head caps outside the house,” he recalls. “Our neighbors looked at it as a symbol of Zionism, and anti-Israel sentiment was strong.”
The attitude toward Jews was directly related to what was happening in Israel, explains Assayag. During the Second Intifada, there was more tension, and he felt threatening glances from people. However, he explains that the Jews are protected by an edict from the King, so if anyone harms them, they are punished.
Despite this, many Jews felt that their children would have a chance for a better future in France or Canada, so they made sure that their children learned French. Assayag’s father taught Hebrew and all of the children learned with him. He also found creative ways to connect to Israel’s Kol Yisrael radio station and report what was happening back to the community. Assayag knew that Israel would be his future home.
A gifted student, he graduated high school in Morocco at 16. He then went to Israel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. There were no official aliyah agencies in Morocco, so the process was done clandestinely, with a number of stops in different countries along the way.
Assayag did an academic preparatory course (mechina) at the Jerusalem College of Technology, then known as Machon Lev. He was accepted to the computer engineering faculty and lived in the dorms for the first two years.
He halted his studies to serve in the army for 18 months, and then returned to finish his undergraduate degree.
“I was in a combat unit, and during this time I tried very hard to assimilate,” he explains. “What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I gave up on my Moroccan heritage in order to feel like everyone else.”
With his computer engineering talent, Assayag was in high demand in Israel’s rising hi-tech scene. He went to work for a computer company in Ramat Gan, followed by stints at other hi-tech companies.
“I was an innovator and entrepreneur in my soul, and had lots of start-up ideas,” he says. “I made the decision to pursue my ideas on the one hand, and to work as an independent computer engineer on the other.”
He started an app with a friend, but they were not quick enough to bring it to market. When they saw that someone else had already come out with a similar idea, they decided not to continue.
“For me, thinking of new innovations is not difficult. The hard part is in making the ideas work,” he says.
Assayag moved back to Jerusalem, and is now involved in a daring new start-up. The company, MDVoice, aims to diagnose illness through listening to the person’s voice.
The team consists of an ear, nose and throat doctor from a major Jerusalem hospital, two doctors with masters in public health and specialization in neuroscience, and Assayag. They are now in the development stage and looking for investors. Assayag is confident that this can be a major medical breakthrough.
No less important than his professional journey, Assayag has also been on a personal journey which has taken him back to his roots. After his grandfather died, he returned to Morocco for the first time since making aliyah. His grandfather had been the only Jew living in the Sahara Desert.
“He was an alcohol merchant, as Muslims are not allowed to sell alcohol,” explains Assayag.
The visit to Morocco in 2015 sparked something deep in Assayag.
“I asked myself why I gave up on my heritage when I went to Israel,” he says. “When I returned, I wanted to connect to this side again.”
Coincidentally, Assayag heard about a new program in Yeruham, Elul Min Hamizrach, which was bringing young people together to “learn about the rich Jewish heritage, culture and identity of Jews from Islamic countries [the Middle East and North Africa] and Ethiopia in order to emphasize the connection between Eastern and Western culture and create a more equal and inclusive narrative for all segments of Israeli society.”
Elul Min Hamizrach delves into the beauty of the texts, traditions, music, history, philosophy, education and culture of the Jewish communities from Islamic countries, which was missing in the Israeli mainstream narrative.
“The 40-day program, run during the special time of the month of Elul, was transformative for me,” says Assayag. “I felt that after 18 years in Israel, I had finally found a home.”
Assayag says others in the program accepted him for who he is.
“I did not feel that I had to change to be like everyone else,” he explains. “The language here, the learning, the exploring with young people from every walk of life in Israel, was open, inclusive and non-judgmental. At the same time, I was able to contribute to the program through sharing my first-hand knowledge of the rich culture and Jewish heritage of Morocco.”
Assayag is still in close contact with the two young men that started Elul Min Hamizrach. He is pleased that the program has led to the establishment of the Kulna Campus in Yeruham, which now consists of a continuum of programs, from a pre-army preparatory year, to the post-army Zricha program which helps discharged soldiers transition to civilian life, to the Kulna Sapir college program for a degree in social activism.
Assayag’s entire family has made aliyah. And like his family, he hopes that one day Israelis will accept one another for who they are, and welcome everyone into the conversation.
This article was written in memory of Nina (Haya) Ayelegne, who passed away after Yom Kippur. She was an inspiration to everyone who met her, and lived her life accepting and embracing people for who they are.