This woman revolutionized Israel’s education system - here’s how

Long before COVID, Yaffa Zilbershats was promoting the concept of remote digital learning in order to make higher education accessible to all segments of the population.

 ZILBERSHATS WANTS Israel to become ‘a brain gain country.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ZILBERSHATS WANTS Israel to become ‘a brain gain country.’

When she devised and developed her six-year plan for Israel’s academic institutions, Yaffa Zilbershats, the outgoing chair of the Budgets and Planning Committee of the Council for Higher Education, (CHE) had not the faintest inkling that she was starting a revolution.

Zilbershats had already done something revolutionary by being the first woman to head CHE’s Budgets and Planning Committee. Not only that, but she also served two terms, having impressed Naftali Bennett, who as minister for education, was head of the CHE. It was he who appointed her for a second term.

Long before COVID, Zilbershats was promoting the concept of remote digital learning in order to make higher education accessible to all segments of the population. She did not know at the time how valuable a tool digital education would become.

At the time of this interview, no replacement for her had yet been announced, so she was still holding the fort until her successor could take over.

 YAFFA ZILBERSHATS: A campus is a hothouse for knowledge and discipline, and a place in which to give birth to ideas for start-ups and practical initiatives. (credit: Courtesy) YAFFA ZILBERSHATS: A campus is a hothouse for knowledge and discipline, and a place in which to give birth to ideas for start-ups and practical initiatives. (credit: Courtesy)

ASKED WHAT she considered to be her greatest success, Zilbershats, a professor of law emerita at Bar Ilan University, unhesitatingly said that it was her three-pronged six-year plan.

She had a year in which to build it and convince the Finance Ministry to make additional funding available for higher education.

“To compete with other developing states, we needed more funding for academic units,” she explained.

The first part of the plan was to develop data for nano physics and precision medicine in collaboration with industry and defense in order to create a national research plan for the development of the state, while simultaneously creating a permanent connection between industry and academia.

The second part of the plan involved teaching in what she calls “the new campus” in which digital learning accompanies in-person academic studies.

“I envisaged before COVID that we would have to use our digital capacity, which is relevant to all teaching, but mostly in academic teaching.”

For this purpose, she got the CHE to join a global platform for digital learning in order to help all of Israel’s academic institutions.

Once the pandemic invaded the country and prevented children from going to school, she was asked by the Finance and Health Ministries to what extent the academic digital teaching system could be used for elementary and high schools.

Zilbershats could not provide an answer from the top of her head, and she went and asked all the people in Israel who had developed digital teaching programs, whether this was feasible. The unanimous answer that she received was “We can do it all.”

This included conducting exams by digital means. 

“I didn’t know there would be such a great revolution,” she said in retrospect as she sat in the CHE office that she will soon vacate. “But reality is stronger.” 

Realizing that as beneficial as remote digital teaching may be, there was also a need for social contact and an in-person exchange of ideas, Zilbershats recommended that the new campus be used for entrepreneurship. 

“A campus is a hothouse for knowledge and discipline, and a place in which to give birth to ideas for start-ups and practical initiatives.”

She also recommended that entrepreneurship and initiative be looked at in a new manner and taught in schools so as to better prepare young people for the future through practical learning that complements digital learning.

THE FOCUS of the third prong is on academic life and access to higher education for all segments of the population.

This sometimes means bending the rules – as for instance on the matter of segregated classes. Because the CHE would like to see all residents of Israel, regardless of the population segment to which they belong, reaping fruit from the tree of knowledge, it agreed that members of the ultra-Orthodox community could have separate classes for men and women, even though segregation of any kind goes against the grain. The issue was actually taken to the Supreme Court, where it was realized that in order to ensure academic education for the ultra-Orthodox, gender segregation was necessary. Last year, there were 13,000 ultra-Orthodox students in academic institutions in Israel. This year there are 15,000, and the numbers will continue to rise. Altogether, according to Zilbershats, there are 350,000 young men and women studying at Israeli academic institutions, which represents a 4% increase over the previous year. There are also more female students than male students, not only among the ultra-Orthodox, but also in general, with the exception of physics, computer sciences and engineering.

Yet despite the fact that there are more female graduates, the high academic and administration positions in universities tend to go to men, said Zilbershats, who has been pushing to make sure that all potential is examined and that everything available to men is also available to women. 

Asked if she thinks there are enough universities in Israel, her reply was in the affirmative, which bewildered this reporter, who argued that if so many high rise residential towers are being built to accommodate the population that keeps increasing from year to year, how is it that academic institutions are not keeping pace?

Zilbershats relented slightly and said that an academic team led by Nobel Prize laureate Aaron Ciechanover and Prof. Joseph Klafter, a former president of Tel Aviv University, is examining the possibility of opening another university in the North. 

“But we have to be stingy,” she said. “We already have eight universities, including one private and one open university, 20 public colleges and 10 private colleges.”

Questioned as to the possibility of upgrading some of the colleges and turning them into universities, Zilbershats was doubtful, although she did enthuse over Reichman University, which started out as a college and was upgraded in August by the Council for Higher Education, which also approved that the institution change its name from IDC Herzliya to Reichman University.

Zilbershats, who wants Israel to become “a brain gain country” – an international hub for sharing and disseminating knowledge – sees Reichman University as a pioneer in that role. From its earliest beginnings a quarter of a century ago, Reichman offered courses in English and encouraged the enrollment of foreign students, who got to know Israel and make friends with Israelis, while Israeli students improved their command of English and got to learn a lot about the countries and lifestyles of foreign students. Reichman University currently has students from more than 90 countries.

AS FOR Israeli students, when Zilbershats speaks of making academic learning available and accessible to all segments of the population, she includes not only the ultra-Orthodox, but also members of the Ethiopian community and Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who live in places where Israeli law prevails, such as east Jerusalem.

The idea in the first instance is to find high school students regardless of creed or color, who have the potential to shine scholastically, and to coach them till they reach a certain standard that will enable them to continue on to university.

But one of the greatest bugbears of all students seeking higher education is the psychometric tests whose results determine whether or not a student is eligible for enrollment.

Curiously, these tests are not the province of CHE. Every institution determines its own rules, said Zilbershats.

It seemed absurd, taking into account the fact that so many people who want to study medicine fail in the psychometric tests, and either give up on their dream or go to study abroad. Some become very good doctors, and then Israel does everything possible to tempt them to come home, when they didn’t want to leave in the first place.

The good news is that as of next year, the quota of students accepted for medical studies will increase annually by 100 in the first year, 200 in the second, 300 in the third and 400 in the fourth. The additional intake has been made possible by the establishment of medical schools in the Galilee and at Ariel University.

Although she is now a professor emerita at BIU and can stay there for as long as she’s doing research and teaching, Zilbershats, whose staff members attest to the fact that she’s a workaholic who needs very little sleep, will not be satisfied with research alone, though she is extremely interested in civil rights, having had as her teacher, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak.

What she really wants to do right now is to become involved in unifying the Jewish people. 

“I’ve done my bit for Israel,” she says, “and now I’d like to do something for the Jewish people as a whole.”

She is one of nine candidates for the position of executive chair of the Jewish Agency.

What happens if she is elected?

She will have to give up her research at BIU. It won’t be like it was at CHE, where she was able to work with five students “who all passed” while still performing her duties. 

At the Jewish Agency, she would not be able to do that.

“I might leave Bar Ilan,” she said, “but Bar Ilan will never leave me.”