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Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) Pres. Chaim Sukenik In Teaneck This Shabbat

When Professor Ze’ev Lev founded Jerusalem College of Technology in 1969, his vision was to educate students who felt that Torah learning and higher education could be partners, and train them to take their place in the world of Israel’s developing high tech industry. The Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) started with seven students and today has over 4,000. And it continues to reach out to students from diverse sectors of the Israeli population who value Torah learning and the economic stability of a career that begins with higher education.

Professor Chaim Sukenik, newly appointed President of JCT, will be visiting Teaneck’s Bnai Yeshurun and Rinat Yisroel on January 10th and Bergenfield’s Beis Midresh on January 11th to talk about JCT’s unique mission: educating religious students, including those in the haredi and Ethiopian population, and integrating them into Israel’s high tech industry and the IDF.

Professor Sukenik comes to JCT from Bar-Ilan University where he served as the Dean of the Faculty of Exact Sciences. He holds a B.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cal Tech. He made aliyah from Cleveland, Ohio in 1995.

In an interview with JLBC, Professor Sukenik talked about the challenges in attracting students who don’t come from a tradition in which higher education is valued. “How do you take a large population that has shunned academic higher education and say this is an opportunity to solve issues of poverty and the social issues that come with it? We’re offering that opportunity and some are taking it.”

For the haredi population, Professor Sukenik said JCT can tout its proven track record in accommodating their culture. “We tell the men, we want to make sure that you have the ability to best utilize your intellectual talents and support your family in a respectable and comfortable way. We do the same for the women—we want to make sure they get a high quality education and that they are employable. We invest a lot of effort in placement, making sure to help them find jobs—as we do for all students coming out of the college. We don’t ask them if they intend to support their husbands in kolel.”

The approach is different in the Ethiopian community. “Many parents are still largely illiterate; they don’t have higher education and don’t value it,” Professor Sukenik said. “They would rather see their kids flipping burgers to bring in money. We give them a stipend and that makes it okay.”

JCT has separate men’s and women’s programs: Machon Lev for men and Machon Naveh specifically for haredi men in the main campus at Gvat Mordechai, Jerusalem; Machon Tal for women in Gvat Shaul and Machon Lustig for haredi women in Ramat Gan.

To get up to speed, haredi and Ethiopian students participate in a rigorous 16-month pre-academic program in which they learn math, science and English and then must pass an exam. They go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in accounting, computer science, or one of many engineering tracks, including electronics, electro-optics, industrial, medical, and software.

Women at JCT can also study nursing; JCT grads have achieved the highest scores on Israel’s National Nursing Examinations, according to a JCT fact sheet.

The women’s program has been operating in rented space that it is rapidly outgrowing. In May the city of Jerusalem awarded JCT 24 dunam (about six acres) adjacent to the main campus in Givat Shaul to build a women’s campus. They are in the final stages of getting approval for permits. “We have done a good job without a campus, but renting space isn’t the way to run a first-rate program,” Professor Sukenik said. “This will be our focal point for the next decade.”

In addition to training students for positions in industry, JCT trains them for the IDF. “We’re stepping in to provide mechanisms for all segments of the Israeli religious public to interact with the army,” Professor Sukenik said. “Lots of different formulas are being made and combinations being created that really do accommodate a variety of attitudes towards the army.”

JCT graduates have a prominent role in the IDF. “Electro-optics is really the “brand” of Machon Lev (the name is often used informally to refer to the whole school) and can be found in anything from surveillance satellites to space programs to communications,” Professor Sukenik said. “The preponderance of Machon Lev graduates in these areas is staggering.” Some examples of grads in the IDF: Lieutenant Colonel Y (name not published for security reasons) is a young army major who developed a formula that restored a failing communications satellite to full functioning. Yoni Wotta, a graduate of the second graduating class of the program for Ethiopian immigrants and recent MBA graduate, was just promoted to major and now serves as Commander of the Science Systems Unit of the Telecommunications Division in the IDF. Current students also participate. The IDF is considering the use of a final project by two seniors who developed a mathematical model to reduce launching time for IAF jets.

American students will soon be coming to JCT in increasing numbers. JCT is launching a new program for English speaking students who want to combine post-high school study in an Israeli yeshiva with courses at JCT in English one and-a-half days a week. They can complete a degree or stay for one year and continue their studies in the U.S. with credit. The first students will begin next fall.

Currently, English speaking students in yeshiva can take part-time courses at JCT for one year but have to switch into Hebrew courses if they want to continue. That can be daunting, as Teaneck resident Tzvi Silver learned. “I knew after four months of yeshiva in Israel I didn’t want to leave,” Silver said. “I went to an event at JCT and was impressed; I knew I wanted to study engineering. This was a way to stay in Israel and start in English. Now my courses are in Hebrew. The language was hard, but now it’s much better.” (See side-bar)

Professor Sukenik’s main priority for JCT is to make the quality of the program good enough so that it is a viable option for the best students who want to combine Torah learning with higher education. He said there is a parallel with YU’s student body. “When I entered with a class of 300 men, some students came in with marginal educational records and others turned down full scholarships at Ivy League schools to come to YU,” he said.

He also wants to ensure that the program is compatible with the needs of Israeli industry. Several departments now have review committees that include both faculty and people from relevant industries to review the structure of the degrees and course content. A third goal is to maintain a good level of research. “We need to keep research current; it’s important for the school’s overall image and for the benefit of the students so they come out with a solid perspective of what’s state-of-the-art in the field they are being trained in,” he added.

Israeli politicians have shown increased interest in education and the haredi population. President Shimon Peres visited the campus on the day I spoke to Professor Sukenik by phone. “President Peres spent the whole afternoon here,” he told me. “He asked to speak to the haredi students. He asked one guy, ‘Why did you come here?’ And he said, ‘Because they have a proven record, they can give me what I need—a good education in an environment I feel comfortable in.”

Reaching out to haredi and Ethiopian students requires substantial funding. Ari Pfeffer, Executive Director of Friends of JCT (US), said that while the government pays for 60% of each student’s higher education, private donations contribute to the cost of faculty, equipment, tuition, and scholarships. In addition to Professor Sukenik’s talks at Teaneck and Bergenfield shuls, a parlor meeting for JCT will be held at a private home.

The Friends of JCT feel strongly about the school’s mission and want to help make it successful. Former board president Aurora Cassirer said she first heard about JCT 10 years ago and was “impressed with the role they play educating Haredei, Modern Orthodox, women and Ethiopians.”

Board member Andrew Neff, a securities analyst from Teaneck, said he was asked to speak to JCT students on a panel about business and technology and then became involved in the school. He was instrumental in setting up its MBA program. “JCT is proudly Zionist and religious,” Neff said. “It can bring top educational standards to populations that can’t be addressed elsewhere.”

Professor Sukenik cares deeply about the social implication of bringing different groups together. “I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing religious boys with black yarmulkes and knitted yarmulkes sitting alongside each other in the beis medresh or in their classes,” he said. “It’s an important way to get different segments of the population talking to each other.”

For more information contact Ari Pfeffer at apfeffer_friendsofjct.org.

By Bracha Schwartz

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