World ORT, Kiryat Yam announce $8m. campus project

American donor Betty Schoenbaum provides lasting contribution to Israeli education, particularly for Ethiopian community.

Ethiopian schoolchildren (photo credit: Courtesy )
Ethiopian schoolchildren
(photo credit: Courtesy )
World ORT Dir.-Gen. Robert Singer and Kiryat Yam Mayor Shmuel Sisso announced a joint project to build a school complex in the heart of the city at a press conference in Haifa on Monday. The initiative is attempting to address an entire city's educational needs rather than a project in an individual school. The project was largely underwritten by the Schoenbaum Family Foundation, which donated $5 million of the $8m. total. Initial tenders went out Sunday and there is hope that the cornerstone will be laid in the next few months. The grand opening is scheduled for two years from now. The sprawling campus would take advantage of an area a block from the ocean and opposite the municipality building that already houses one of Kiryat Yam's two high schools, the Rodman School, a new library building, and an absorption center. According to a presentation by Sisso, the project's initiators have aimed high and have planned an elaborate campus. They intend to build an Ethiopian heritage center, which would be erected next to the absorption center, which these days houses mostly Ethiopian olim. According to Sisso, 3,000 of Kiryat Yam's estimated 48,000 residents are Ethiopian. Six hundred are in the city's school system, he said. "Once, people talked about the melting pot, where we turned everyone into the sabra stereotype. That appears to have been a mistake. Now we talk about cultural dialogue and preserving the immigrant's identity," Roni Kalinsky, World ORT's representative in Israel, told the gathered journalists. In addition to the heritage house, a science park, science library and a science center with "smart" classrooms and laboratories are also planned. Sisso said he would concentrate all the far-flung programs in the city's various schools in the new building and bring the pupils there to participate. The planned campus is part of a World ORT program to turn Kiryat Yam into "Science City." Kiryat Yam also collaborates with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, busing pupils to programs there and bringing teachers back. The planners also intend to take advantage of the city's shorefront to open a water sports center on campus. Olympic windsurfing medalist Gal Fridman will be one of the teachers there. "The kids spend so much time surfing and in the water now, it's good for them to do it in the framework of school," Nehama, a biology teacher at the Rodman High School, told The Jerusalem Post during a tour of the school and the campus area after the press conference. Kiryat Yam has historically been home to waves of immigrants - "immigrants absorbing more immigrants," as one resident told the Post - and its overall socioeconomic status is fairly low. According to Sisso, 40 percent of the city's residents are immigrants, 45% live in housing projects, 18% are single parents, 30% require supplemental income, and 98% of them work outside the city. A couple of physics pupils walking around Rodman were happy about the new campus. "There are definitely worse places to live, but all the supplies we get are used. It's about time we got a nice lab and nice computers," the elder of the two sisters told the Post. Betty Schoenbaum, the 90-year-old grand dame of the Schoenbaum family of the Shoney restaurant chain fame, sent a video message recorded on Sunday especially for the press conference expressing her pleasure at being able to contribute. "For many, Israel is a distant place and if they know Kiryat Yam at all, it's just a city near Haifa," she said. "My late husband Alex and I have dreamt about making a significant and lasting contribution through education. It is very important to stimulate interest in science at an early age. It is our duty and our pleasure to help them acquire those skills," which will assist them in their professional lives, she said. "I and my four children embrace Kiryat Yam," she said. Singer explained that Education Minister Yuli Tamir had pushed World ORT in the direction of Kiryat Yam and the Rodman School a year ago. After giving specific assistance to the school, they met with Sisso, whom Singer knew from when they both served in the diplomatic service in New York, and began dreaming bigger. It was then that Singer approached Schoenbaum about underwriting the project. "Sometimes dreams really do come true;" it was a case of visions coming together, Singer said.