By: David Silverberg

Tamir, a 21-year-old raised in the Israeli port city of Ashdod, is one of six children of immigrant parents. His mother suffers from a physical disability, and his father is unemployed. Guetto, is a year younger and moved to Israel only five years ago. Around that same time, his father died from an illness. Four years later, his mother was killed in a car accident. Shlomo, is one of five children born to a poor immigrant family in Netanya. His father works as a janitor in a hospital, and his mother cleans houses.

For each of these young men – all of whom belong to Israel’s Ethiopian immigrant population – a particularly difficult background seems to leave little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and social disadvantage. With few exceptions, Ethiopian immigrants continue to face enormous challenges in their effort to make the modern Jewish State their new home. Approximately 25,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), and today, an estimated 100,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. The vast majority of them were born and raised in an agrarian African society, many cultural light years away from Israel’s thriving, technologically-advanced, industrialized economy.

While all immigrants arriving at Ben Gurion airport must endure the complexities of acculturation, and often struggle with formidable language and cultural barriers, the newcomers from Ethiopia face an exceptionally difficult challenge. Right off the farms outside Addis Ababa, they find themselves in one of the world’s fastest growing centers of hi-tech development. Without money or marketable skills, and often with disease – not to mention a lack of knowledge of Hebrew and Israeli culture – Ethiopian immigrants must surmount enormous hurdles in their desire to extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty and integrate into Israeli life.

And Ethiopian immigrant poverty is indeed a cycle. An unstable family setting leads to all kinds of educational problems, which in turn lowers the chances of a child’s interest in, or acceptance into, a program of higher education, which of course holds the key to a successful career. Thus, the parents’ struggles directly translate into a bleak prognosis for their children. According to a statement by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, “the most critical obstacle to the absorption of the Ethiopian community is the education system. For the Ethiopian community, education is the only avenue to social mobility and a critical key to the future.”

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the percentage of 12thgraders from this population who complete their matriculation exams is the lowest of any group in the country. Juvenile delinquency runs woefully rampant in Ethiopian immigrant communities, and only a tiny fraction of youths proceed to higher education after high school.

From Zion Shall Come Forth Torah – and Technology

Seemingly a world away, sitting on a picturesque Western Jerusalem hilltop, lies a vibrant campus nurturing some of the Jewish nation’s most promising young minds and souls. The Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), commonly known as Machon Lev, is a renowned institution that offers training in a wide variety of technological and business-related fields combined with intensive, yeshiva-style Torah learning. Established in 1969, JCT remains the only accredited institution in Israel that combines Torah study with advanced technological training. Over the last 40 years, JCT has produced thousands of engineers, programmers and other hi-tech professionals who are proficient in classic Talmudic and halachic texts. The Center now boasts some 3000 students enrolled in its four academic programs.

Many of JCT’s graduates are at the forefront of scientific and technological research, playing a vital role in Israel’s remarkable emergence on the cutting edge of technology development. According to Rosalind Elbaum, Director of External Affairs, “JCTgraduates are developing non-invasive medical technologies for diagnosis of disease, creating high-tech devices for the disabled, and applying state-of-the-art techniques to expand the frontiers of communications systems. Many of the country’s high-tech engineers and most of its electro-optics engineers are JCT graduates.”

JCT students emerge from their intensive period of training as desirable candidates for gainful positions in Europe and the U.S. Yet, over 95 percent of them choose to remain and settle in the Jewish homeland, where they help develop Israel’s economic independence and move it further along the road to prosperity. To date, over 60 hi-tech companies in Israel have been established by JCT students and faculty.

The fusion of a cutting-edge technology education together with high-level Torah learning not only demonstrates the synthesis between Torah and a successful career, but also engenders an uncompromisingly value-based approach to professional life. Torah ethics and values are taught at JCT as integral components of the workplace. Students learn that professional and religious excellence are perfectly compatible with one another, and that achieving high professional standards does not require compromising religious standards. Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident and Israeli minister, and now the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, remarked, “JCT has demonstrated through concrete achievement in the real world that religious belief and scientific analysis complement each other. While others promoted only the ethic of success, JCT has placed unique emphasis on the importance of ethical conduct in the highly pressured world of free market competition.”

Major Ilan Raiz – A Portrait of Excellence

A shining example of this ideal, the confluence of technological skill and the dedication to Torah, the Jewish way of life in Israel, was Major Ilan Raiz, a.h., a career officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who, in his short life, compiled a dazzling resume of accomplishments. As a teenager growing up in the coastal city of Bat Yam near Tel-Aviv, Ilan was very active in religious life in his community, serving as hazan (prayer leader) and ba’al koreh(Torah reader) for several synagogues. Upon graduating high school, he was conscripted into the IDF’s Military Academic Officer’s track, as part of which he completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Logistics at Bar-Ilan University. Later, he would also earn a degree in Computer Science from Bar-Ilan, as well as an MBA from Netanya College.

When Ilan joined the military, he served as a maintenance officer and deputy company commander in the prestigious Golani Brigade. Several years later, after completing his computer studies, he was transferred to the IDF Command, Control and Communications Branch. He was assigned over several important projects, including the celebrated Beacon 400 communications system. Beacon 400 essentially computerizes the battlefield, enabling Israeli troops to receive and exchange real-time information about everything going on in battle. In the autumn of 2008, just before Ilan’s untimely passing, the IDF conducted a large-scale exercise to test Beacon 400’s capabilities. The system’s success during that exercise – which has been credited largely to Ilan – resulted in its immediate authorization for use during military operations.

During Ilan’s term of study at Bar-Ilan, he met his wife, Lali. Ilan and Lali settled in the town of Elkana, in the Shomron (Samaria) region, where their four children were born.

On mossaei Shabbat, November 8, 2008, during Ilan’s weekly basketball game with his friends, he went into cardiac arrest and collapsed. Resuscitation efforts failed, and Ilan was pronounced dead, at the young age of 36.

“Ethiopians for Engineers”

It is here where the three parts of our story – the plight of Ethiopian immigrants, the Jerusalem Center of Technology, and Major Ilan Raiz – converge.

The Raiz family wished to perpetuate Ilan’s inspiring legacy of excellence and devotion by advancing the ideals which he embodied. The most natural place to turn was JCT, Israel’s leader in fusing technology with commitment to Torah life in Israel. As the family explored various possibilities, they were struck by a remarkable program that JCT had begun a decade earlier, called “Ethiopians for Engineers.” Students from Ethiopian immigrant communities enroll in JCT under a full scholarship and are offered comprehensive training in the technological field of their choice alongside Torah study. Many spend the first year in a special preparatory “mechina” program to bring them up to speed before being fully integrated into one of the JCT educational tracks. The students are granted a deferment from the IDF, and later, after completing their degrees, they serve in the military as professional officers. JCT was the first among Israel’s leading institutions of higher education to launch an initiative to help Ethiopian immigrant youths integrate into Israeli society.

Five students participated in a successful pilot project in the 1996-7 academic year. Since then, over 200 Ethiopian students have taken part in the program, over 70 of whom have graduated. Many work as career officers in the IDF, while others proceed to join Master’s programs. Both of these opportunities could not have been dreamed of without JCT’s groundbreaking initiative.

In addition to preparing the participants themselves for a successful career, the program aims at creating new models for young Ethiopians. Graduates return to their communities as living examples of successful integration into social, professional and religious life in Israel – inspiring many others to follow suit and pursue advanced degrees and Torah studies.

A number of “Ethiopians for Engineers” students have already been introduced, earlier in this article. Tamir, the 21-year-old Ethiopian student from Ashdod whose mother is disabled and whose father is unemployed, has just completed his third year at JCT, where he studies Electronic Engineering – in addition, of course, to Torah learning. He is preparing for a promising career and – just as importantly – setting a spectacular example for his five siblings. And Guetto, whose parents are both deceased, spent this past year in the preparatory mechinaprogram, and is slated to begin learning toward a computer degree next year – just six years after leaving Ethiopia. Shlomo, the third Ethiopian immigrant introduced earlier, has also completed his preparatory program and will begin studying Electronic Engineering next year. The program promises to transform the lives of these young men and their families, from a hopeless cycle of poverty and disadvantage, to a proud, productive and spiritually meaningful future.

The Fruits of Ilan

The Raiz family saw within the “Ethiopians for Engineers” program all the ideals that characterized their beloved Ilan’s far-too-short life: academic excellence, devotion to Torah, building Israel’s hi-tech industry, hesed, and strengthening Israeli defenses through technological innovation. The family thus decided to establish “Perot Ilan – the Fruits of Ilan” – a special fund aimed at allowing JCT to expand its program to include larger numbers of Ethiopian students.

The cost incurred by the College for each student under the scholarship amounts to approximately $10,000 a year, including tuition, extra tutoring, room and board. JCT receives funding from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency covering one-third of this amount; the rest of the burden must be financed independently. Perot Ilan seeks to assist JCT in its pioneering efforts to build a brighter future for Israel’s struggling Ethiopian population, while at the same time contributing to the security and spirituality of Eress Yisrael. With the help of the Perot Ilan fund, 76 Ethiopian students learned Torah and technology in JCT during the 2009-2010 academic year, including 55 full-time students.

Doubling Down

Last year, Perot Ilan received a challenge grant from the Seattle-based Samis Foundation, which focuses upon, among other charitable causes, helping gifted youths from disadvantaged families realize their academic potential. The Samis Foundation offered to match donations to Perot Ilan dollar-for-dollar, up to $500,000, toward the establishment of an endowment fund. The annual proceeds from the endowment will go toward sponsoring the schooling of Ethiopian immigrant youths at JCT.

The name “Fruits of Ilan” is a play on the name “Ilan,” a Hebrew word for “tree.” But in addition, the fund indeed represents the “fruits” of Major Ilan Raiz, as it works to reproduce his qualities of excellence and devotion. It gives some of Israel’s most desperate youths the opportunity to build a future of success, and it gives Israel the opportunity to reap the benefits of the vast potential latent within its immigrant population. The students supported by this scholarship are the “fruits of Ilan” from which the people of Israel will be partaking for many years to come.

For more information about the Perot Ilan scholarship fund for Ethiopian immigrants, please visit www.perotilan.org or contact Rosalind Elbaum, Director of External Affairs for the Jerusalem College of Technology, at elbaum@jct.ac.il.