Spreading around success

Jehuda Haddad, president of the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, went from one of Beersheba's poorest neighborhoods to founding an educational institution.

spaceship 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
spaceship 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Lots of little boys dream of building a spaceship in their back yards, but Prof. Jehuda Haddad, 53, did it. Fulfilling the dream took vision and hard work, coupled with hutzpa and what Haddad calls "Jewish engineering," but recently, Beersheba's Sami Shamoon College - known locally as the spaceship college - celebrated its 10th anniversary. Key to Haddad's whole concept of education is that the the country's fastest growing college is built right in the middle of the impoverished neighborhood where Haddad grew up. The Haddad family came here as immigrants in 1961. Jehuda, fifth of 11 children, was eight when they emigrated from the village of Gabes, in Tunisia. "My father was a businessman in Tunisia," Haddad says. "He had a shop, and we lived in a large home near a very nice beach. Economically, Israel was a step down, but my parents were Zionists and believed their children would have better educational opportunities here. When we first arrived, we lived in a ma'abara, a transit camp, in the Gimel neighborhood. Then we moved to the 'high-class' Daled neighborhood." Haddad laughs - Beersheba's Daled neighborhood has always been one of the city's most troubled. The Haddad family struggled. "We had a very small house. We were 11 kids, plus my parents and my grandparents, and we always had a lot of guests. On Shabbat, the table was too small for us to all eat at the same time, so we took turns. When our guests slept over, we'd push all the beds to the wall, and everyone would line up, sleeping in rows on the floor. But it wasn't bad - I had a wonderful childhood. What I remember is not that we were crowded, or that we had so little. It's that we were happy. When you live in a little house, it can feel like a big house - it just depends on how open your heart is. When your heart is big and open, everything looks very large. "My father got a civilian job, working for the army. With so many of us, there's a finite limit on how far you can stretch a salary. My mother would get up early to pack school lunches - the whole table would be covered with bread for sandwiches, a different kind for each of us. By the time we came home from school, the house was clean, laundry done and a meal ready. I can't even imagine how my mother did it all, but she did." As a child, Haddad dreamed of becoming a civil engineer, but fate intervened. During his army service, he was part of an armored personnel carrier team working to evacuate wounded soldiers from Chinese Farm, one of the bloodiest battles of the Yom Kippur War. Under heavy fire, they saved a group of paratroopers, but in the process, Haddad was seriously wounded. Although he received the Medal of Courage, his life changed direction. "At that time, the only place I could study civil engineering was at the Technion in Haifa, and I wasn't able to travel that far. The roads weren't good, and I was still recovering. So I switched to materials engineering, and earned my degrees - undergraduate, master's and a PhD - at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev." He stayed on as a professor at BGU until the chance to fulfill his adult dream presented itself. COMING FROM an immigrant background, one of Haddad's concerns was that initially, higher education wasn't available to young people who lived outside the center of the country or to those whose economic situation limited their achievement in high school. "That changed in 1990," he says. "The Council of Higher Education authorized the establishment of colleges in outlying areas like Beersheba. Many poor and immigrant families live here in the South, and those kids didn't test well enough to get into the country's universities, so their futures were limited. My dream was to create a place to serve those forgotten young people - to give them an opportunity to fulfill their dreams just as my parents had worked so hard for me to fulfill mine." Instrumental in fulfilling the dream was Prof. Oscar Levy. "We discovered we shared a goal in terms of expanding the reach of higher education. He and I and several other like-minded people met and began talking seriously about establishing an engineering college in Beersheba, one that would offer a full four-year academic program, not just a two-year degree. Things progressed, and I made the jump, left BGU and began working full-time to establish what was initially called the Negev Academic College of Engineering. Was it a risk? "Of course - I had a very good position at BGU. I loved what I was doing. But at BGU, 60 percent-70% of the students came from the center of the country, which meant that local, immigrant kids from disadvantaged families couldn't get in. If I wanted to fulfill my dream of offering higher education to those kids, right here in my own neighborhood, I had to take the risk." How does one go about creating a college? "Several of us were involved. We talked, discussed, planned and refined our ideas. My first day, I just sat and thought. Then I began walking around, checking the facilities - we'd taken over buildings that had been the Beersheba College of Technology, just across the street. I checked the library, to see what books existed. I went through the labs, to see if there was anything usable. We finally settled on what programs we'd offer, and wrote it all down in a big book, which had to be presented and approved by the Council of Higher Education people in Jerusalem. "When it was ready, I drove to Jerusalem myself to present it. I walked into the office, and the clerk asked, 'So who are you?' I tried to explain - 'I'm from Beersheba' - but I didn't get that far. She interrupted, telling me they were very busy and I'd have to come back. So? I'm a good soldier. I picked up my book and drove home. It eventually worked out fine, of course, but I learned something that day." Part of achieving your dreams lies in how you treat others, Haddad says. "I believe in humility. If you want to succeed, you have to build a good relationship with other people. When you achieve your goals, it's with the help of God, of course, but it's also because of other people. Success is something that has to be spread around - and when you pass it on to others, then your own success becomes even greater." The CHE ultimately approved and in 1995, the Negev Academic College of Engineering opened. "We started with 95 students," Haddad recalls. "We'd recruited an excellent faculty, drawing on academic talent from all over Israel. We had three engineering departments: civil, electrical and chemical. For all of us, it was a risk - professors who left other positions were taking a risk, and students who enrolled wanted to know if we'd last, and if their diplomas would be respected." FROM THE time the college was fully certified in 1997, it was so successful, growing so quickly that larger quarters were essential. But where was the money to build a whole new campus? "When I was a student myself, I'd received yearly scholarships from the Israel Sephardic Education Fund (ISEF), which was funded by a major Jewish philanthropist, Edmond Safra. Safra himself had passed away, but Mr. Sami Shamoon, a wealthy British Jew, had been his close friend and fellow philanthropist. An event to commemorate Edmond Safra's memory was organized, and some of us who had benefited from his help were invited to attend. That's when I first met Sami Shamoon." The occasion was a major social event, Haddad says, "like a wedding." "When Sami Shamoon entered the room, people lined up to shake his hand. I was able to talk with him for about a minute, just long enough to tell him I was working on a project that was in line with his own educational philosophy, one that could be named in honor of his friend Edmond Safra. I gave him a business card. Two weeks later, I got a phone call. 'Were you the person who talked to Mr. Shamoon about naming a college for Edmond Safra? He lost your card, but he wants you to call.'" That was the beginning of a warm personal relationship between the wealthy British Jew and the Tunisian immigrant who'd grown up in Beersheba's worst neighborhood. "We needed money to build," Haddad says. "Sami and I worked together, tried for a long time to get it from the Safra Foundation so we could name the college after him, but the process was taking too long - we were desperate to begin expanding. By that time, Sami and I had spent many long hours talking. We agreed entirely on educational philosophy, on how education must be made available to a broad spectrum of Israel's youth. On one visit, I took him out into the Daled neighborhood, showed him this weed-infested, trashy wasteland the city called a garden. 'This is where I want the college,' I told him. "Finally I couldn't wait any longer for the Safra Foundation. 'Sami,' I said, 'could you help me build the first building?' 'Of course,' he said. 'How much do you need?' 'Three million dollars,' I told him. 'You'll get it,' he said. "I couldn't believe it! I was this close to kissing him - I thanked him, over and over, kept reminding him it wasn't for me, it was for the college. He kept saying, 'It's okay, it's okay.' He wrote a check, and we started building." Additional space was needed almost immediately. "By then, we had many more donors, but we couldn't put everyone's name on the college. Still no answer had come from the Safra Foundation, so again I turned to Sami. 'Sami, let's change the plan. How about naming the college after you?' I said. "'Really?' Sami asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'Why not? You believe in what we're doing.' 'So how much money do you want?' Shamoon asked. I told him then it was going to take many millions, really a lot of dollars. 'You'll have it,' he said. That's how the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering came into being." Today, the college educates 3,400 students, in 10 departments on two campuses, the original campus in Beersheba, and a new campus in Ashdod. But Haddad's educational philosophy extends beyond the actual campuses, reaching out to young kids who aren't even enrolled. Haddad's innovative "Flowers" project benefits the development town of Dimona. "We decided to have some of our students go live in Dimona," Haddad says. "We offer a scholarship, a rent subsidy and daily transportation. The idea is that during the day, the students will come to the campus to study, then return to Dimona, where they'll help with community projects of some kind. The idea is that by living there, in the midst of this distressed community, we'll introduce kids of Dimona to the concept of higher education. Show them it's something they themselves could do, which, believe it or not, isn't something they'd learn on their own." The Dimona program is all about inspiration, a key component in Haddad's thinking. "Education doesn't start when a kid gets to be 18," he says. "It must come much earlier, at least by 10. We aren't the government. We can't change the system the way we'd like, but we can help. The Dimona project is geared to show little kids what their lives could be like if they'd just study. We're introducing them to engineering, showing them that they, too, can build and achieve. Our students tutor and help with other things, but mainly, it's their presence there - living examples of success - that makes the difference. It's goes way beyond community service." Another Haddad initiative benefits Ethiopian immigrants. "We're going to educate 100 Ethiopian engineers," he says, adding that educating Ethiopians is a more complex issue that might appear. "Ethiopian immigrants have a different mind-set than the rest of us, and their poverty makes it worse. In Ethiopian families, parents often don't want children to go on to higher education, preferring instead that they go to work, to help the family financially. That's shortsighted - if you send your 17-year-old kid out to work, you're compounding the economic problem. "So for Ethiopians, plain scholarships don't work. What we require is that the Ethiopian students live in a dorm. We provide everything - living quarters, meals, spending money, computers, everything. They go home for Shabbat and to visit, but they're required to study and live in the dorm. Without that requirement, most would be under pressure to work for extra income. That wouldn't be in their best interest." The Ethiopian engineers program is an expensive undertaking. "We're dedicated to producing 100 Ethiopian engineers, but we're doing it in increments, 25 a year. We took 25 the first year, 25 the next and so on. If I had enough money, I'd do it for all the Ethiopians I could find. Who knows? Maybe someone will be inspired to help us." Inspiration is the message behind the college's main auditorium, which is built in the form of a spaceship. "The spaceship inspires us to look up, way up, into space. To force ourselves to dream dreams that are way beyond anything we'd ever think we could achieve. Dreams can't be all that practical - they have to be something that seems to be far beyond your reach. "I believe if someone wants to achieve something, he can do it. Look at me - I'm not Einstein. But I believe that people can achieve anything they want, if they just believe in themselves. And what come after that, when you've succeeded? You can't forget your neighbor. Success isn't worth anything unless you spread it around."