I grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Beer Sheva. When I was 13, I had a chance encounter with Prof. Samuel Bergman, a Zionist who came from the United States to help establish the Computer Science Department at Ben-Gurion University. Prof. Bergman saw the young boy standing in front of him, really saw me and started a conversation with me. He asked me if I knew what a computer was. This simple question was the Number 1 revolving door that changed my life. In fact, that conversation with Prof. Bergman laid the foundations for a wonderful relationship between us over the decades and, most importantly, propelled my entry into the world of computer science and technology.
Prof. Bergman and me
On that fateful day, Prof. Bergman invited me to the university. I gladly accepted the invitation and enjoyed a series of one-on-one sessions with him in the university's computer lab, which at the time seemed to me like a space lab. The door he opened for me was a gateway to a world of knowledge and unlimited opportunities, which until then had been blocked and which I had not even dared to dream about. From that moment on, I felt obligated to take advantage of the opportunity given to me to the fullest, and also to pass it on.
The second revolving door occurred years later. After my military service in the paratroopers, I was accepted to study for a Bachelor's degree in Prof. Bergman's department at Ben-Gurion. After graduating, Prof. Bergman invited me to his home for a beer. I announced with satisfaction and self-importance that I was looking for a job. He asked why I am not continuing my studies. All that went through my mind was that I was the first in the family to complete an academic degree, and in my family at that time a Bachelor’s degree was roughly equivalent to a knighthood. I replied that I was going to work because in relation to my family I had reached a significant achievement. His response was: “What does your family's level of education have to do with your abilities? Why are you tying yourself with artificial cables?”
These questions resonated in my head a few days later. The connection I made between the environment in which I grew up and my developmental horizon was artificial and limiting. Most of the limitations we have about ourselves are perceptual and not real and therefore we have the power to change them. I graduated with a Master’s degree and later I also completed a doctorate in Engineering. I am the middle child of ten brothers and sisters. It was only after my younger siblings saw me graduating from university that they realized it was possible. Now all of them hold two degrees.
If I had not met Prof. Bergman and faced his questions, I do not know how the course of my life would have developed. We all have a dual role. Once you take advantage of opportunities that are given to you, they do not just “fall into your lap;” you must do something with them.
Passing on the message
And here comes the second part of the equation: how do I pass on this baton? It may be by committing to help a particular person, group or organization. Every act has a meaning, and is a potential revolving door. The empowering experience I had as a child when I met Prof. Bergman placed on me an enormous responsibility to “pass on” the message. This desire actually led me to try to repair my private world by establishing Ofanim – an NGO that promotes equal opportunities in education by making STEM studies accessible to children throughout the Israeli periphery, in an experiential way.
I am proud of Ofanim, which reaches thousands of children every year in communities in the north and south of the country, and gives them a real opportunity to study technological subjects at the highest level. We reach these kids in their natural environment through buses that have been converted into mobile technology labs. The accessibility of technology and education for children who do not have access to these resources helps to bridge the difficult social gaps that we are all familiar with in Israeli society.
In its 73 years of independence, Israel has reached incredible achievements in many areas. However, at the same time, we are seeing a significant setback in education and inequality, and huge social gaps have opened up. It is important to emphasize that the ultimate responsibility for these gaps lies with the state, but as a society we are all equal partners. As such, we also have a responsibility to build a compassionate society with social solidarity.
Ofanim arose as an initiative of people who care, people who were looking for a way to produce real social change. Today, after 17 years, we have over 55,000 graduates! An external survey found that the number of Ofanim alumni completing the highest level matriculation in mathematics and science is three times greater than the national average – a significant achievement that excites me on a personal level. Behind this beautiful statistic there are hundreds of faces and success stories that started from a challenging starting point, just like me.
One of them is Dotan, an Ofanim graduate from Moshav Maagalim near the Gaza Strip. He describes his participation in the program as a significant key experience that propelled him to amazing achievements, such as completing an IDF officers’ course and a degree in Economics. Ofanim first of all satisfied his curiosity as a child and exposed him to new worlds of content. It gave him confidence to make more ambitious and meaningful choices in his professional and academic path. Dotan calls his experience a “leap forward.” For me, if we succeed in making every child leap forward in the direction of their choice, it will be enough.
“We all can and should act”
Now that I have found my place among the privileged members of Israel’s famous Start-Up Nation, I feel even more compelled to ensure that no one gets left behind as a result of where they grow up. I know that I am not alone in feeling a sense of responsibility towards today’s youth and I am happy to see that many of my colleagues and peers are eager to contribute to this national mission.
I am particularly thrilled that Friends of Ofanim, the NGO’s philanthropic arm in the United States, has launched a unique partnership program specifically tailored to enable Israeli start-up and high-tech companies in the U.S. to support Israel's Next-Gen engineers and scientists. The program, called “The Start-Up Nation for The Next Generation” is headed by Boaz Ozery, the Executive Director of Friends of Ofanim, and I am confident that this initiative will help change the lives of many young people in Israel’s socioeconomic periphery.
My story proves that social action is indifferent to the background from which you came or to any other circumstantial element. We all can and should act to light the candle of action that everyone holds and together produce a torch that changes life paths. As one who has experienced tikkun olam on both sides, as both the recipient and the giver, I know how much power goodwill has in combination with doing – no matter how modest. I believe with all my heart that each and every one of us can be Prof. Bergman for someone.