Jewish Journal

L.A. Donors Turn Israel ‘Brain Drain’to ‘Brain Gain’

by Judy Lash Balint, Contributing Writer

Posted on May. 25, 2010 at 4:57 pm

In October 2009, an official of the Israeli Council for Higher Education told the Knesset Education Committee that Israel had inadvertently become the world’s largest “minds exporter.”

According to Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the council’s planning and budgetary committee, some 25 percent of Israel’s academics presently choose to live overseas. Israel has lost as many as 1,000 young post-doctoral scientists to research institutes abroad in the last decade due to the lack of science budgets, according to Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh.

It’s no secret that a significant number of these Israeli scientists have found appointments at universities in California, but two new initiatives funded by Los Angeles donors at Bar-Ilan, in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, aim to turn the “brain drain” into “brain gain” for Israel.

The Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Nanotechnology Triplex, a nine-story, $150 million multidisciplinary center housing the Bar-Ilan Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), dedicated earlier this month, has already brought back to Israel scientists from a wide variety of fields who had been teaching at leading universities abroad. At least eight of 29 Israeli scientists Bar-Ilan brought back came from
California universities, including the Scripps Institute, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and California Institute of Technology.

With the opening of the new Gonda building at Bar-Ilan, “We have the potential to entirely change the direction of Israeli science and research over the next decade,” Harold Basch, Bar-Ilan’s vice president for Research and Development, said.

“Israel has the best brains, but not enough money. But investment in infrastructure can bring back 20 times as much in new products and patents in a wide variety of fields,” Kaveh said.

The Gonda Nano Triplex is designed for scientific exploration on the nanotech frontier, which involves research and engineering matter at the molecular level. The triplex consists of three interconnected towers — the Nano-Fabrication Building, the Nano-Science Building and the Nano-Health Building — hosting dozens of researchers and their experiments. When fully completed, the triplex expects to become the most advanced facility of its kind in Israel and among the most advanced in the world. It will include lab facilities for nanotech start-up companies that will grow out of BINA’s research groups and 39 individual research labs for
BINA’s scientists.

Los Angeles-based donors Leslie and the late Susan Gonda are Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Venezuela in 1947, where Leslie Gonda developed commercial and industrial complexes leased by American drug and cosmetics companies. 

In 1963, they moved to the United States, where Leslie, along with his son, Louis, and Steven Udvar-Hazy founded the International Lease Finance Corp. In 1998, the Gondas created a foundation dedicated to the memory of their relatives lost during the Holocaust that has benefited the Mayo Clinic, UCLA, Santa Monica’s St. John’s Hospital, City of Hope and numerous medical research centers in Israel and throughout the world.

Among the returning scientists is Amos Sharoni, who returned to Israel last September after spending five years at UCSD. After receiving his doctorate in physics from Hebrew University, Sharoni made the difficult decision to leave Israel to pursue his research in nano-magnetics. “I’m a Zionist,” Sharoni said. “I always wanted to come back to Israel, so I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to continue now at this wonderful new facility at Bar-Ilan with all the equipment I need, and bring my wife and three kids back home.”

But it’s not only in the scientific field that scholars have been deserting Israel. Post-doctoral students in the humanities are particularly hard to find in Israel. 

The Barbara and Fred Kort Doctoral Fellowships of Excellence Program in the Humanities, also just inaugurated at Bar-Ilan, aims to help humanities students by providing full support for outstanding Bar-Ilan doctoral students in the fields of translation and interpreting French, Arabic, English, and Hebrew and Semitic languages. In return for financial support, the students pledge to devote themselves to their doctoral studies on a full-time basis and to complete their degree within four years.

The Kort Program is part of a university-wide, pioneering Doctoral Fellowships of Excellence Program — the first of its kind in the State of Israel — launched over a decade ago through the leadership of Bar-Ilan president Kaveh. 

Barbara Kort traveled from Los Angeles, accompanied by a delegation of nearly 40 family and friends for the dedication of the program, which also was attended by China’s ambassador to Israel, Zhao Jun.

Several years ago, Kort and her late husband, Fred Kort, established the Fred & Barbara Kort Sino-Israel Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which assisted 100 students from China to conduct joint research with Bar-Ilan faculty in physics, biochemistry, mathematics, the social sciences and even Judaism.

A native of China, Barbara Kort undertook the management of the Imperial Toy Corp. upon her husband’s death in 2003.  Fred Kort was one of nine people known to have survived the Treblinka death camp in Poland. When he arrived in the United States at the end of the war, he established and became president of the giant toy company, which has since been sold. 

“Both my late husband, Fred, and I felt that education is the key to future quality of life. That’s why doing this project in Israel, and especially at Bar-Ilan, made so much sense for me,” Barbara Kort said at the fellowship dedication.

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