Technion Meets New York

Many are forecasting that the new educational venture between Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Cornell University will be ‘game-changing’ for technology in New York City. Long a hub of finance, commerce, fashion, and education, New York has been edged out by San Francisco and Boston as the hub of American high-tech enterprise. But with a robust consumer market and offices from top global firms, New York has the potential to leapfrog its smaller counterparts.

The question had long remained, however, which institutions could do for New York what Stanford and Berkeley did for the Silicon Valley and Harvard and MIT did for Boston. New York needed a center of education and innovation that could spawn new start-ups and ensure a critical mass of talent to for high-tech firms.

With the offer of free land on Roosevelt Island on which to build a campus and 100 million dollars in infrastructural investments from the city government, New York set off a bidding war in 2010 between ambitious universities seeking a foothold in New York and the chance to make a name for themselves as the go-to institutions for high-tech. They each drafted and submitted proposals for the campus they envisioned for America’s biggest metropolis.

The question was what each could each offer – and how fast could they offer it to the city that is in a perennial rush to get ahead.

When Cornell and Technion stepped forward with a bold, collaborative proposal for a new campus, replete with 2 million square-feet of new space for learning and launching tech ventures, they brought themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with Stanford, the early favorite. Stanford eventually withdrew its bid (apparently discontented about its negotiations with New York’s city government).

Within an hour of Stanford’s withdrawal, generating some speculation about the timing, Cornell announced that it had received a 350 million dollar donation to underwrite the first stage of development. Its plans for a new tech campus with Technion were quickly secured and soon thereafter made official.

While pundits have largely focused on the implications of the forthcoming, massive center of technology for innovation and a shift toward East Coast ventures in America, fewer have reflected on its implications for Israeli businesses, American-Israeli relations, and the chance for American Jews to learn about Israel.

This is the first time, as far as I am aware, that an Israeli institution will help administer a university campus within the United States. In place of the handful of Israeli professors present at many American universities will be dozens of Israeli entrepreneurs, professors, and thought-leaders at a center that one of Israel’s flagship institutions is co-directing.

For American Jews, this could mean an entirely new way to connect with Israeli culture, art, technology – and most of all people. The majority of American Jews who have never visited Israel can now get a taste of its culture without having to get on a plane. Such ease of access may create a point of entry or a first step for many Americans on the path to greater engagement with Israel.

The new campus could also lead to an influx of hip, young Israelis, who could become de facto representatives to the American Jewish community. Instead of engaging with Israel abstractly as an idea, American Jewish professionals could work, live, spend time with, and hopefully build community with Israelis who set up shop on the new campus. Israeli culture could be brought to life for American Jews through relationships, rather than being limited (as it too often is) to theoretical discussions about politics, peoplehood, and policy.

American Jews could learn about the country where so many of their coreligionists live simply by going to work or school. Synagogues, too, might reap benefits from new Jewish immigrants, bringing their own flavor of Israeli Judaism to American institutions.

The new campus is also likely to create new ties between American and Israeli technology firms. Israel already is a leader in per-capita patents and venture capital – and is attracting American firms to its shores. (Just this week, Google opened a new Tel Aviv office in search of fresh ideas and high-tech visionaries.) The new campus could enable Israeli firms to scale up, bringing successful products to the far larger American marketplace even more quickly than they already do. In turn, this could lead to more investment by American companies and venture capitalists in Israel and a positive cycle of growth for Israeli firms.

Lastly, the new campus could significantly improve American perceptions of Israel, which are often framed by newscasts rather than personal interaction. Sharing of Israel’s intellectual and social capital will only be to the benefit of a country that has so much to give culturally, but which is too often associated with conflict rather than contribution. By showing, rather than telling, of Israel’s forward-looking culture of entrepreneurship, it can refresh perceptions of Israel and re-frame conversations about Israel in more productive ways.

It would seem that the new Cornell-Technion campus is itself in many ways a large-scale start-up, with the potential to transform New York and the American high-tech scene. But its contributions to Israeli-American relations and relations between Jews from the two largest Jewish communities in the world should not be understated. If successful, it is a venture that could ready the soil for a bounty of learning and collaboration.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Spiritual co-Leader of East End Temple in Manhattan. He previously served as an Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Interreligious Studies and one of six finalists globally for the $100,000 Coexist Prize. His articles only represent his own personal views.