From venture capitalist to ‘Star Man’

For most American immigrants to Israel, Mitzpe Ramon may as well be Mars.

Moving to Israel allowed Machefsky to follow his passion for astronomy, leading starlit tours in the Negev.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moving to Israel allowed Machefsky to follow his passion for astronomy, leading starlit tours in the Negev.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For most American immigrants to Israel, Mitzpe Ramon may as well be Mars. But for Ira Machefsky, this dusty little Negev town is not only his new home but also the base for his second career, leading starlit tours of the nighttime sky.
“I’ve been an amateur astronomer and lover of the skies since I was a teenager,” says the founder of Astronomy Israel.
“Back in the 1950s and 1960s, you could still see the stars,” he adds with a laugh. “We kids would go out and play... looking at the sky through a pair of opera glasses. One night I saw a shooting star... It was like seeing a woman and falling in love at first sight. I was totally obsessed.”
He even built his own telescope in high school and, during college, took courses at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.
Yet astronomy remained a hobby, as he forged a career in computers and later in venture capitalism.
Only after he and his wife, Pamela, moved to Mitzpe Ramon in 2009 to be near their only child and her family, did it dawn on Machefsky to begin a new venture based on his lifelong passion.
A graduate of the Memphis Hebrew Academy in Tennessee, Machefsky was raised in a strongly Zionist Orthodox family. “My aunt was the chairwoman of Hadassah; my grandparents visited Israel quite often.
When I was young, I did not give it much thought. But my wife and I always knew we’d come to Israel.”
In fact, he did not even visit the Jewish state until 1991. He had been busy building his professional life and growing his collection of stargazing equipment.
In 1973, while studying toward his doctorate, Machefsky was given the opportunity to work in the university’s new computer center. “I fell in love with the computer, and that was my life from then on,” he relates.
Having such access in those early days of computing was rare, and Machefsky was excited about exploring its research capabilities. One of the projects on which he collaborated was an attempt to automate the scanning and diagnosis of Pap smears.
“After that, my career turned in a different direction and I took a job in Massachusetts with Digital Equipment Corporation, which used to be the world’s second-largest computer company. But few people remember it, because it was bought by Compaq.”
Machefsky relocated to Palo Alto, California, to run the company’s West Coast university research program.
He remained there for 17 years, and then joined a start-up analyst firm, where he got his foot in the early Internet commercial door. In 1998, he joined the venture capital firm Odeon Capital Partners in Manhattan.
That move made it easier to accommodate his daughter Chavie’s wish to attend an all-girls Jewish high school, because there weren’t any in Palo Alto.
The Machefskys bought a house in suburban Bergen County, New Jersey, where several municipalities have large Jewish populations. Chavie had no trouble finding a school to her liking, and she flourished there.
“Our daughter was even more Zionistic than we were,” her father says.
Now 28, she spent a gap year in Israel at Orot College in Elkana and realized her dream of living in Israel.
“When she made aliya, we naturally followed her here,” says Machefsky, pausing to say goodbye to his three-year-old grandson. The Machefskys often help care for their three grandchildren, who live half a mile away.
He explains that his daughter and her husband, Donny Fuchs, wanted to populate the desert in the ideological tradition of David Ben-Gurion. “They love the severe beauty of the landscape and the wildlife,” he explains. “The kids can feed ibex in their own backyard.
Donny is studying to be a tour guide, and he plans to specialize in the Negev.”
When one of his friends learned of Machefsky’s plan to make aliya to Mitzpe Ramon – which has become a tourist resort thanks to its foremost feature, the world’s largest naturally occurring crater – he remarked that the desert town is a great place for astronomy. This was an “aha” moment for Machefsky.
“We’d visited before, and I knew it was the only place in Israel with a professional observatory, the Wise Observatory of Tel Aviv University, which is also the only research observatory in the Middle East,” says Machefsky.
“I was really intrigued by the idea. It occurred to me that nobody was taking advantage of the beautiful skies here to do something for tourists.”
Rather than make Pamela “an astronomy widow,” he jokes, he determined to turn his interest into a real job.
“I had all the equipment and just needed to print up business cards and create a website. Then I went around to the hotels and told them I was going to do star tours. It started out slowly, one or two a month, and eventually with word of mouth and advertising, and the Beresheet and Chez Eugene luxury hotels opening, I began to get a lot of calls.”
Fortunately for him, many of the two hotels’ guests are English-speakers from abroad. Possessing only basic conversational Hebrew skills, Machefsky gives his tours in English only.
Recently, a couple from the New York area took him up on the offer on his website: a free star tour for anyone planning to propose marriage that night. The young man arranged everything ahead of time with Machefsky, down to the music and a party at the hotel afterward.
Yet, the simple thing that Machefsky loves about Israel is being surrounded by everything Jewish.
“I’ll be walking in some public place like the post office or a university campus, and realize that every door has a mezuza.”
He downplays the culture shock of moving from a large house in a New York City suburb to a small apartment in rural Israel.
“We like the apartment and have neighbors you’d never expect to have in Englewood, like Black Hebrews, Russians, the scion of a Moroccan rabbinic dynasty, and a car mechanic whose Hebrew is gobbledygook to me. Most of my neighbors in Englewood were doctors, lawyers and architects. But it didn’t feel like a step down here. It is more comfortable. I can take it easy and do what I like,” says Machefsky.
“The place is a little crowded, but I don’t sit around and say I wish I had a big house. Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot,” he says, quoting from Ethics of the Fathers. “And I am happy with my lot in my modest little apartment, in the modest little town of Mitzpe Ramon.”