Chaim Sukenik

The indispensable value of Israel’s wartime academic year

The prospect of starting the academic year during wartime has been a hotly debated issue not only within Israeli higher education, but across Israeli society. In essence, the nation was stuck between a rock and a hard place — an unsavory choice between all students losing a year of instruction, or students currently called up for IDF reserve duty playing catch-up as they return to campus at various points throughout the year.

From the vantage point of a college president, the decision to resume studies late last month was the right call, despite the challenges. Here’s why.

Among Israel’s 360,000 reservists in the Iron Swords War, an estimated 100,000 are enrolled as university students — 30% of the country’s higher education student body. In addition, many faculty and staff have been called up. In terms of the war’s impact on our academic community, the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) is no exception. 

The importance of higher education is clearest within the bigger picture of Israel’s economic outlook. The Jewish state is in dire need of skilled professionals in health care, engineering, and computer science — three key areas of focus for our college. Delaying students’ education in fields where Israel has acute personnel shortages will severely undermine the country’s economy. 

An idea floated in discussions about this academic year was to allow reservists to pass their courses even if they haven’t been able to attend classes or take exams. This should not be an option because each step in education matters. Letting a reservist sail through a course that lays the foundation for the next one harms their ability to handle more complex classes in the future, exposes vulnerable students to an even more tumultuous academic experience and positions them for professional failure down the line.

Instead, JCT’s senior staff has customized course schedules and requirements for students doing IDF service as well as for students whose spouses are serving. We’ve increased the number of asynchronous courses (online courses in which the instructor and student don’t need to be present at the same time), and increased personalized mentoring to assist those who need help completing their coursework. First-year students are receiving particularly extensive supplementary assistance, instructional videos, and tutoring from fellow students and from faculty to ensure that they start their college career on a positive note. Finally, given the goal of completing a full academic year despite the delayed start, all vacations and breaks other than those associated with Jewish holidays have been dropped and thus this school year will be completed before the next year begins.

Is this stressful? Certainly. Yet rather than running away from a challenge, Israel’s academic institutions should lean into this opportunity for growth. As Dr. Safia Debar, a stress management expert at the Mayo Clinic in London argues, some kinds of stress can actually boost our resilience. One of my sons, a psychologist serving in the reserves in the IDF Home Front Command, sees this phenomenon firsthand. Part of his role is to measure the resilience of the home front, identify areas of weakness, and help different groups of people feel more secure. Stress can be challenging but, in manageable doses, can increase self-confidence and resilience. As we welcome our students back to campus, we are working hard to overcome the challenge and support them through the stress, as we show them that life can and must go on. 

What’s more, we have launched this school year against a backdrop of an Israeli society that has come through a year of rancor and divisiveness and is now largely unified. For instance, Haredim who’ve enlisted in the army come home to warm greetings in neighborhoods where they were once afraid to even wear their uniform. This is the time to leverage such unity and make the effort to integrate Haredim and others into Israeli society and into the workforce.  

Haredim comprise 2,000 of JCT’s 5,000 students. Their Torah-centered life-style does not prevent their integration into the worlds of computer science and engineering, health care, and management, as they create their own roadmap to gainful employment. The Haredi community’s human capital is crucial for Israel’s long-term economic well-being. Higher education plays a key role in helping Israeli society get ahead of the curve when it comes to such economic challenges and it cannot shirk its unique role as we encourage people with diverse life-styles to study together and to work together.

At the opening ceremony for this new school year, I told our students and faculty that this newfound sense of national unity and shared mission must allow us to function like two eyes working together – each of us compensating for the other’s blind-spots. Using both eyes enables us to see the whole picture with depth and clarity. Our campus must be a place where we build community.

Given academia’s potential to be a unifying force in Israeli society, the start of the academic year could not have come soon enough. 

About the Author
Prof. Chaim Sukenik is the President of the Jerusalem College of Technology, one of Israel’s most unique and prestigious academic institutions of higher learning with a focus on science and technology. He was formerly the founding Director of the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at Bar-Ilan University and the head of the Bar-Ilan Minerva Center for Microscale and Nanoscale Particles and Films as Tailored Biomaterial Interfaces.
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