US Jews look to revive ‘Start-Up Nation’

Science education conference focuses on how to improve Israeli pupils’ participation in scientific fields.

Ada Yonath, Lou Massa, Gila Ben-Har 370 (photo credit: Marian Goldman/Jewish Funders Network)
Ada Yonath, Lou Massa, Gila Ben-Har 370
(photo credit: Marian Goldman/Jewish Funders Network)
NEW YORK – People are the Israeli economy’s primary resource, Itzik Turgeman told the Jewish Funders Network’s STEM education conference in New York City this week.
“Hi-tech is the main engine of Israel’s economy,” said Turgeman – the director- general of the Rashi Foundation, which has been working in education and social welfare in Israel for over 20 years – and “the fuel of this engine is people. Israel’s main resource is its human capital.”
The conference, which was organized in partnership with his foundation, focused on presenting the challenges the country faces in terms of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
And there are indeed challenges. During his presentation, Turgeman also had some “disturbing” facts to share with the audience about the Start-Up Nation, such as the large gaps in achievement between Israeli students and those in other countries on the international PISA evaluation, which tests for math and science.
Israel ranks only 41st, while Portugal, Poland and Finland are above on the list.
On that test, the percentage of students achieving very high scores is also much lower in Israel than in those three countries.
In addition, Israel’s Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities, which typically tend not to go into scientific fields, are growing, and the number of dropouts from physics classes is increasing.
Attending the event were education professionals from both Israel and the US, as well as philanthropists and representatives of Jewish funds interested in investing in STEM education in the Israeli school system.
“STEM education, and education in general, is critical to our view of what is necessary for Israeli society,” Rashi Foundation president Hubert Leven told The Jerusalem Post in New York on Tuesday.
“STEM is what can advance the country’s development,” he added. “If we don’t invest in this, Israel as a start-up nation might soon become some nice memory of the past.”
The foundation has been involved in promoting the country’s STEM education for many years. Some of its initiatives include a youth program at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, a Druse high school of science, and the state-of-theart Madarom science education and cultural center in Beersheba. The foundation usually works in a partnership model with philanthropists from all over the world to advance projects in Israel.
According to Leven, “it’s not about people donating money, it’s more that they are investing money. You invest in people, in the country.”
Today, though, “it’s even more about the sharing of ideas, and finding out what we can do to improve scientific learning in Israel,” he added.
During the conference, experts discussed different solutions and programs to make STEM education more attractive for pupils in Israel.
One of them was Larry Rosenstock, the principal of High Tech High, a San Diego school that focuses on STEM subjects. He spoke about the need for experienced teachers, explaining, “We integrate student and teacher learning. The idea that teachers are finished is completely wrong.”
In fact, educators were one of the main subjects of STEM-related conversations. In a panel discussion at the conference, teenagers in the Rashi Foundation’s Future Scientists and Inventors program responded to the question “What is a good teacher?”
“To me, it’s a teacher who always makes students reach the answers and results by themselves, but it’s also a widely educated teacher, who you can ask about anything,” said 15-year-old Amit Levin.
Levin recalled that before enrolling in the Future Scientists and Inventors program when he was 14, he had been bored at school.
“We always get tested on material that we basically have to memorize and forget. When I talk to adults, I see that no one remembers a lot from school,” he said.
“Schools should really prepare you for real life, not just [make you] learn theory that you won’t remember and come out of school with no purpose. Our program doesn’t assume that 14-year-olds can’t learn at a high level and accomplish higher things.”
He also noted that most kids his age found science boring and lacked the enthusiasm he’d always had for the subject.
“I think the education system doesn’t allow kids to see the real side of science. They are taught equations, but not how to do science,” he said confidently, in perfect English. “We need teachers who are excited.”
Enthusiasm seems to be what is missing in Israeli children, who tend to prefer other study tracks than science and technology. To increase the number and quality of students going into STEM, education professionals discussed re-introducing the long-lost “wow” factor that kids in 1969 experienced when they saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon for the first time.
“Kids need to say ‘wow’ at least once a day about something,” asserted Barak Ben- Eliezer, CEO of Winnovation, a private fund investing in start-ups. “It’s about passion. If we can shape the passion of kids while [they’re] very young, it will be for the long term. And when a few kids are passionate, it can go viral very quickly and inspire others.”
He drew a comparison to the upcoming holiday, saying, “In a few days it’s going to be Hanukka, and we’re going to light candles. Candles are like passion – it burns in each one of us, but you need to find it, reveal the light.”
Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, drew another comparison: “It’s like the story of the baby eagle, who was born in the nest and doesn’t know he’s an eagle. He looks up and above him, he sees big eagles flying around and wishes he could, too, not knowing he can.”
He explained that “what we are trying to do here with STEM education is help eagles be eagles, help children of all walks of life develop their full potential and give them an opportunity to be who they can be, and by doing that, we can give society the opportunity to be as great as it can be.”
Spokoiny added that he believed in “the power of philanthropy” to change society and influence the development of STEM education in Israel.
“We are all here because we believe that together, working in partnership and in networks between philanthropy, nonprofits and the public sector, we can really make life better for all these little eagles that need to learn how to fly,” he said.
Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, who closed the event, used to be one of those baby eagles herself.
Coming from a poor family living in a religious Jerusalem neighborhood, she had always been intrigued by “how nature works.”
Marie Curie inspired her as a child, she said. “I looked up to her, but she wasn’t my role model, simply because I never thought I could do science. I didn’t know it was possible.”
Years later, in 2009, Yonath received the Nobel Prize for her work on the structure and function of ribosomes.
“Who would have dreamt,” she asked the audience, “that I would be recognized and ride in a limo?” She attributed her success to the “extremely knowledgeable” teachers she had in school, saying, “They knew how to transmit the love of knowledge to pupils. They supported my curiosity.”
One of the members of the Jewish Funders Network who sat in the room was Angelica Berrie. Born in the Philippines and raised Catholic, she married a Jewish man, Russ Berrie – something she calls “an accident of faith.”
Her husband owned the Russ gift company, famous for manufacturing the popular troll dolls. When he passed away at the age of 69, Angelica, who had converted to Judaism, took over the company as well as the family’s foundation. Today she is president of The Russell Berrie Foundation, which makes transformational gifts in Israel such as the nanotechnology institute at the Technion.
“A start-up nation like Israel is dependent on the pipeline of education for its long-term economic growth,” she told the Post during the conference.
“Without kids and teachers entering the system with the right skills, the ability of the nation to innovate is at risk.”
However, she continued, “as important as STEM literacy and the ‘STEM for All’ agenda should be to Jewish funders, we are a nation that cannot lose sight of its deeper risk – losing our Jewish soul with a lack of equal attention.”
She recalled that “when I studied for my conversion, I embraced the knowledge that wherever Jews were in the world, they enriched their own communities with higher learning and a refined appreciation for arts and culture, but their impact on history and humanity has always been from their being a people capable of generating big ideas in all areas of endeavor – business, philosophy, literature, technology, art and more. It is this motivation that drives Jewish philanthropy, not the material and scientific achievements of a people, but the values transmitted from a 3,000-year-old spiritual tradition.”
The Jewish Funders network aims to open an ongoing fund dedicated to STEM education in the country.
“We have to be aware of what is being done in the field and aim at having a collective impact,” said Spokoiny. “We have to work together as funders and network to advance this issue in Israel.”