Tikvat Israel Congregation

A Conservative Synagogue in Rockville, MD

Hasbara: Focus on Israeli Innovation (part 3)

by Harvey T. Kaplan

Naomi and I spent most of July in Israel.  We told everyone we were going there to see our grandson Aaron Kaplan participate in the 20th Maccabiah Games. Aaron is on the Maccabi USA Youth Soccer Team (a boys’ team ages 16-18).  We had several other objectives to accomplish during the trip.  As we have done on a handful of past trips to Israel since our first visit in a group of Americans from Bonn and Frankfurt, Germany in 1978 (where I was stationed with the U.S. Army), we always have considered trips to Israel learning opportunities as well as occasions to explore.  That’s precisely what we did this summer, amidst a series of Aaron’s soccer games against other national teams from all over the world.  The team did well (won some, tied some, and lost a few games) and we’re proud of our grandson and all the members of the group. 

The one tour that relatives were allowed to take with the team was for an orientation and guided tour of The Technion, located in the hills above Haifa.  The boys went to many other historical and exciting locations in Israel, but they agreed that the Technion tour was an amazing highlight.  [Many of the boys in the group are interested in majoring in a technical discipline in college.]

Israel, of course, is very proud of the institution, which was started in some old buildings near Haifa’s harbor in 1912, decades before the nation existed, and it unquestionably has come a long way—continually expanding and upgrading since the establishment of Israel in 1948.  A few relevant facts: (1) The Technion currently has about 14,000 students, approximately 11,000 of whom are international students (largely from China, the United States, and India).  For comparison, MIT in Boston has about 10,000 students.  (3) The institution considers Albert Einstein, a true Zionist, among its “founding fathers.” (3) Technion programs are focused on the sciences and engineering, emphasizing the mechanical and civil engineering fields, with some other specialties of note, agricultural disciplines and medically-related fields.  (4) The Technion has three Nobel Laureates from the faculty, all of them in Chemistry.  (5) New cooperative campuses are scheduled to open later in 2017 in New York City (on Roosevelt Island in the East River opposite midtown Manhattan) and in Guongdong, China.

We had the opportunity to visit two high-tech programs at The Technion, with the expert assistance of students and faculty.  The first was a team-based contest to develop a new and faster gas-powered vehicle each academic year.  This is a real challenge in a nation that does not have a veritable automotive industry.  Students from a range of fields work together in this voluntary program to design and build a car that in European competitions surpasses the Technion’s entry from the prior year.  Our guide explained some of the intricacies of the program; he emphasized the value of student members’ working together to meet challenges and solve problems as a team in a technical arena, and answered all of our questions in detail.  He actually let us “touch” this year’s student-produced single-passenger racing car (an extremely light vehicle with a one-cylinder engine, down from a 4-cylinder entry last year).  The team was making final arrangements to pack the car and its accessories for shipment to upcoming races at two European sites.  Here’s a view of this year’s competition vehicle.

The other Technion program that we had an opportunity to review was the thoroughly fascinating robotics laboratory and the test sites.  We witnessed robots execute mazes and also other devices designed to perform useful functions.  The Professor who manages that program at the Technion personally gave us the tour and demonstrations.

What we witnessed is an example of the ongoing work on the evolving technology that will someday soon provide us with driverless options for our passenger cars.

This article has turned out to be very different from what I have shared in past issues, since it does rely on what I have seen on my own—not what I’ve read or learned from the various media.  Yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t also include my personal observations, from this recent trip, of Israel as a high-tech (and in many ways a “start-up” nation).  Naomi and I have been to Israel a total of five times since 1978, for several weeks each trip.  This time we saw more newly-completed structures and ongoing construction projects of all types than on any of our previous trips (including high-rise residences, office buildings, modern and expansive shopping malls, new rail lines, highways, mountain tunnels and bridges for both road and rail, and intricate yet well-designed freeway interchanges, etc.).  I was especially impressed by the beautiful apartment homes, hotels, and condos popping up everywhere—both in the hills and along the Mediterranean coast. 

The light rail system in Jerusalem is fast, smooth, modern, comfortable, inexpensive (normal adult fare of about US $1.75), and a most convenient way to get around town.  Naomi and I rode the train all the way from the Har Herzl/Mount Herzl terminal in the west through downtown and then far into the residential communities in the northernmost reaches of the City.  In my opinion, it’s a far cry from the old trolley cars I remember clogging and intermittently blocking the streets of New York.  Partly because it has its own dual track right-of-way for almost the entire route, it beats many of the light rail designs I’ve seen in recent years in the USA.  I hope that the final design of our Purple Line, which very likely will come to Montgomery County, will include many of the technical innovations I experienced in the Jerusalem system.  We were told by an old friend we visited that light rail is coming to the Tel Aviv area too. 

As my parting “shot” for this issue, here’s what that high-tech car looks like, traversing a formerly congested portion of the City of Jerusalem in route to Har Herzl.  By the way, the modern electronic signage within and outside the cars and at the ticket machines readily communicate with the rider in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English.