December 21, 2021
For Prof. Chaim Sukenik, president of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), a recent visit to Southern California marked a homecoming of sorts.
Sukenik’s personal history in the region dates back to his time as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1972-1976 and a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Los Angeles from 1976-1977.
“My wife and I very much enjoyed those years in LA, and our first two children were born there,” Sukenik says. “We were active in the Jewish community on behalf of NCSY (a national Orthodox youth group) and have maintained wonderful friendships in the area over the years.”
Earlier this month, Sukenik visited Los Angeles in order to advocate for JCT’s institutional mission, which he says “emphasizes the integration of cutting-edge science and technology with a strong connection to Jewish values, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel. He spoke at the Young Israel of Hancock Park and met with individuals throughout Southern California who are interested in JCT.
Sukenik also used to trip to raise awareness surrounding the college’s campaign to build support for its Tal Campus project. JCT’s new Tal Campus for women is on track to break ground in early 2022. As the permanent home for up to 3,000 of the college’s female students in nursing, computer science, electro-optics, industrial engineering, accounting, and management, the campus will provide increased opportunities for national religious, Haredi, and Ethiopian women to pursue higher education and attain quality employment in scientific and high-tech industries and in the Israeli health care system.
In the following interview with the San Diego Jewish World, Sukenik discusses his thoughts on the Southern California community, his career, the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
What is your impression of the Jewish community in Southern California and its importance within the context of the broader American Jewish community? Did you learn anything new about the region’s Jewish community on your latest visit here?
“When I studied here, the area’s Jewish community already numbered over a half a million people, with the vast majority being unaffiliated Jewishly. Based on what I see in the community today in LA, the Jewish roots are strong, and the Jewish presence is strongly felt. On the American Jewish scene there is no question that LA is a major player, but the high cost of living may be pushing some of the next generation to seek options elsewhere.
“The community here is very well-respected both nationally and internationally. I am pleased to see that support for Israel in the community remains strong. My discussions during this visit about the role that JCT is playing in Israel, both in strengthening the ‘start-up nation’ with our engineering graduates and supporting the health care system with the hundreds of professionals we produce each year, were very-well received.”
You came to JCT, an institution that prioritizes science and technology education, after serving as a professor of chemistry at Bar-Ilan University. Can you describe the journey from Bar-Ilan to JCT, and what your current position has meant for your career?
“My appointment at Bar-Ilan in 1995 was what enabled my family to make Aliyah, and I will always be grateful for having been given that opportunity. My years at Bar-Ilan were very enjoyable both personally and professionally. There was a strong sense of accomplishment in having had the chance to teach and mentor Bar-Ilan students and to be involved in the creation of a very successful Nanotechnology Center. I had outstanding research colleagues at Bar-Ilan and we managed to do some work that is still getting international attention today.
“The move to JCT took me out of the lab and gave me an intensive introduction to the management and policymaking of Israeli higher education. This continues to be fascinating both within JCT and across Israel. The level of professionalism in the Israeli science and technology sector is truly impressive, and to now see it from a more management-level perspective is interesting. Also, since so many of JCT’s graduates go into the science and technology industry, I have become more sensitive to that interface.”
What is the importance of JCT’s project to build the new Tal Campus for women?
“Jerusalem has increasingly become a thriving center of new technology and start-up companies. JCT has been privileged to be a major player in the Jerusalem high-tech scene for decades, and this role has been strengthened in recent years. There is a growing need to increase engineering personnel, and the fact that JCT has been successful in increasing the participation of women in high-tech is very timely. The Tal Campus project will only accelerate that trend. The campus will also play a role in strengthening the role of religious women in Israeli society. Having a high-profile, state-of-the-art campus for women specializing in high-tech and heath care in the heart of Jerusalem will make a significant impact.”
Can you share some of your experience as a college president during the pandemic?
“The biggest challenge of COVID-19 has been working with students who were already dealing with major hurdles in preparing for higher education. Students from weaker academic backgrounds need a level of hand-holding that is difficult to provide in more normal times and doubly challenging under the social isolation conditions of COVID. The fact that our pre-academic preparatory program has held its own throughout the pandemic testifies to the commitment of our students, to the hard work of our staff, and to the generosity of a number of donors who provided supplemental funding when it was needed the most.
“COVID-19 created challenges, but the higher education system seems to be resilient and poised to continue to thrive. Witnessing the success of faculty and students who had to adapt to remote learning has been the most satisfying aspect of these past two years.”
What makes you most excited about the future of JCT?
“We seem to be in the right place at the right time. When our nursing program started 15 years ago, we did not fully appreciate the critical shortage in nurses that Israel was facing. Similarly, the need to offer the Haredi community comfortable entry into the world of higher education is growing rapidly, and we are uniquely positioned to answer that need due the religiously sensitive atmosphere on our campuses and the success of our graduates in obtaining gainful employment. We have had the good fortune of successfully reaching out to various under-represented populations, including the Ethiopian community and the Haredi community, and this is proving to be a game-changer for Israel as a whole. The social benefits for these communities is clear, and the economic benefits for the state are also very clear. We are making a difference.”
Preceding provided by the Jerusalem College of Technology