Opinion: When Torah meets science

Whoever said that women are not leaders in the Charedi world has never heard about the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT). The college, founded in 1969 as a scientific institution for Torah-observant Jews, has 3,800 students, about a third of whom are Charedim.

“It was very important to us that we open our doors to that world,” professor Noah Dana-Picard, who is president of the college, said to me earlier this week on one of his periodic visits to Los Angeles to help raise JCT’s profile. “They have unique talents because of their talmudic background, and we believe they can make major contributions to Israel in the scientific area.”

But guess which Charedim were first to start enrolling at JCT about 10 years ago to study subjects like engineering and computer science? That’s right — the women.

There’s a good reason for that. In the Charedi world, most women are already working, usually as teachers and assistants in nursery and day schools. They saw JCT as an Orthodox-friendly environment where they could upgrade their education and, eventually, get better-paying jobs.

Because the women were already going to Torah-observant schools during the day to teach, it wasn’t a big shift for them to go to a Torah-friendly institution like JCT to learn. Most of the men, however, studied Talmud during the day. Leaving these study halls represented a bigger lifestyle shift for them.

So the Charedi women led the way to JCT. Today, there are about 1,000 women enrolled at the college, studying everything from electro-optics engineering to business administration.

About 300 Charedi men, bless them, have followed. Because the college puts a major emphasis on Jewish studies, this has made it easier for Charedi men to leave their study halls. At JCT, male students study Talmud in the morning and science in the afternoon.

In the morning, they use their eyes as microscopes and their minds as computers to better understand talmudic ideas debated by our sages about 2,000 years ago; in the afternoon, they use real microscopes, laser-sensing instruments and sophisticated computer models to better understand how the human eye works or how to capture solar energy.

When Picard told me that one of the goals of JCT is to elevate scientific studies in the minds of the religious world, I suggested to him that he is also elevating Judaism in the eyes of the secular world. There’s nothing like a scientist with a yarmulke to make you feel good about both Torah and science.

And every male student at JCT wears a yarmulke.

The college is not very well known. Its profile is dwarfed by glittering names like Technion, Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute and Ben-Gurion University. But JCT is holding its own and contributing to Israel’s “Start-Up Nation” status. Graduates have started more than 60 high-tech firms, one of which was bought by Rupert Murdoch and was part of a recent $5 billion acquisition by Cisco Systems.

The original vision for JCT came from world-renowned physicist and talmudic scholar professor Ze’ev Lev, who saw no contradiction between scientific studies and Torah learning. His founding statement could have been written today:

“The institute I envision has as its raison d’être to educate students who see the synthesis of Jewish values and a profession as their way of life: to provide manpower for Israel’s developing high-tech industry, who will establish industries of their own and to produce industrial leaders strongly committed to Israel and the betterment of the Jewish people and the world.”

By creating a Torah-friendly scientific institute more than 40 years ago, Lev might have planted the seed to address one of Israel’s most vexing problems: what to do with a Charedi population of more than 1 million whose Talmud-driven lifestyle among its men is unsustainable and can no longer be supported by the government.

How Israel addresses this dilemma will help define the future identity of the country. If Israeli society can figure out how to attract the majority of Charedim into the work force while respecting their religious needs, and if the Charedim themselves can bend just enough to help make this happen, a whole new world of integration and economic growth might be possible.

But if the majority of Charedim refuse to bend and open their minds to the possibilities offered by the secular world, what is now a vexing problem will turn into a crisis.

The JCT, by integrating the values of Torah study and scientific learning, is doing its share to address this problem. It has answered a classic Jewish question — should I live in the real world or should I live in the Jewish world? — with a classic Jewish answer that the great sage Maimonides understood well: The Jewish way is to balance both.

Just ask the Charedi women who get their kids ready for school every morning and then take the bus to JCT to study electro-optics engineering.

Or the husbands who followed them.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.