The Closing of a Dream Come True

As the stench and dilapidation at BASMAT high school in Haifa suggest, the institution has reached the end of a long road. For some 75 years, it had been one of the city's finest establishments for young minds. Next year, it will be no more.

As the school year neared its end in June, management was already closing shop. Principal Rafi Brinkner and his deputy, Aviva Amrani, were busy overseeing the closing down of the laboratories, the equipment sold or given away to junk dealers.

To accommodate the tens of thousands of graduates who have attended the school since its establishment in 1933, the staff made an extra effort to put the books in order. As rumors of the school's closing spread, graduates and teachers called to ask for their diplomas and other written documents.

The decision to close the institution, Israel's first technological high school, was made three years ago. Since 2004, the school has welcomed no new 10th graders. But the school's death throes this summer ended a prolonged decline of about 10 years.

Over the past decade, management had been in contact with various institutions to try to save the school, which was owned by the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

"About 10 years ago, the Technion had a change of heart about BASMAT," principal Brinkner says. "They decided there was no reason for the Technion, as an institution of higher education, to foot the bill for operating a high school. They tried to get other institutions to take over."

So management spoke with organizations such as the Haifa municipality and the ORT and Atidim high school chains, but none would take over from the Technion.

But things were different in the not-so-distant past. The school's graduates have established themselves as a quality brand in the Israeli industry and technology markets. To some young people, attending BASMAT was a dream come true.

"We were in very high demand," Brinkner recalls of the school's glory days. "Our pupils gained a profession. We offered them a direct course to become technicians or practical engineers. They would write us to consider their candidacy. They knew that we had the best teachers, labs and workshops. We even had a fully equipped car shop."

Indeed, the school can boast a long list of industrialists, engineers and tech geniuses. Tycoons Yuli Ofer and Eitan Wertheimer both graduated from BASMAT, as did El Al's former director-general, Yoel Feldschuh. High-tech company Elbit has seen BASMAT graduates take its helm twice in succession, as its current chief executive Joseph Ackerman replaced Yigal Baruchi.

But in the 1990s, demand for professional schools dropped as high tech and the free professions became more popular. From a student population of 2,500 in the 1980s, the number gradually dropped to a mere 400 - the vast majority of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "The Russian immigrants are technologically oriented from home. And they will graduate with a profession," Brinkner says.

BASMAT's history is interlaced with Israel's history. In the 1940s, it taught survivors from the Holocaust in Europe. One registration form from a 17-year-old survivor from Berlin reads "Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany" under "father's residence."

In 1948, during the War of Independence, the pupils manufactured munitions in the workshops - or at least, the ones who were too young to volunteer for the front. The school later taught Arab Israelis, Kibbutzniks and immigrants along with the cream of Haifa's crop.

Not a lot is left at the Aharoni building, which has housed the school for so long. Burglars who recently took the trouble to break into the building came out empty-handed. They found nothing to steal. In the following weeks, the building will be taken over by the Science Museum next door, also owned by the Technion. Only a commemoration room in the museum will be left of BASMAT.

Graduates will be able to come and show their children bits of BASMAT's former glory - some of the nostalgia Brinkner is already experiencing as he stands in the shade of the old mulberry tree at the entrance to his former dominion.