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Visionary Women Are Creating Groundbreaking STEAM Programs in Israel

The International Visitor Leadership Program is a short-term professional exchange program that connects interlocutors in the U.S. with current and emerging foreign leaders.
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May 27, 2022
The delegation visited the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences. Photo courtesy of Hani Galitsky.

On a recent Sunday evening, a group of Israeli women had dinner at Shanghai Diamond, a bustling kosher Chinese restaurant on Pico Boulevard. They were guests of Yael Swerdlow, board member for the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles (IVCLA), who jumped at the chance to offer local hospitality to the visitors.  Seated at the table were of some of the most innovative and impactful female STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) leaders in Israel.

The International Visitor Leadership Program is a short-term professional exchange program that connects interlocutors in the U.S. with current and emerging foreign leaders. 

The delegation was in Los Angeles as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Developed with the Institute of International Education the tour included stops in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.  IVCLA coordinated the delegation’s LA visit.

The International Visitor Leadership Program is a short-term professional exchange program that connects interlocutors in the U.S. with current and emerging foreign leaders. American diplomats nominate participants; in this case, diplomats in the American Embassy in Israel nominated them. 

“We are pleased to host this group of five distinguished Israeli women as they share best practices and foster connections with Americans on advancing opportunities for girls and young women in STEAM careers,” Anne Grimes, director of the Office of International Visitors at the State Department, told the Journal. “During their three-week visit, the women have had the opportunity to visit diverse communities across the United States.” 

The visit, which lasted April 23rd through May 7th, began in Washington, D.C., where the group took meetings at American University, The National Academy of Sciences, The National Air and Space Museum and the Pentagon. In LA, from April 28th through May 3rd, they heard from speakers at UCLA and The California Science Center, as well as the Two Bit Circus Foundation, which has connected nearly 300,000 students with access to STEAM/STEM education. 

In Philadelphia, they visited Independence Hall and met with leaders from FactSumo, a mobile learning platform with automated classrooms for teachers, as well as the city’s Department of Commerce and its Office of Engagement for Women and Office of Youth Engagement. They also met with students and faculty from Science Leadership Academy to learn how to engage underserved youth in STEAM education.

The trip proved the inimitable power of people-to-people connections, and Los Angeles was no exception, particularly at Shanghai, when restaurant co-owner David Askari, an Iranian American Jew, greeted the delegation, expressed his admiration for the women’s initiatives and served a steaming pot of Persian cardamom tea, infused with orange blossom water. Such are the untold connections that underlie the precious value of building bridges between Israelis and Angelenos. 

The hospitality helped the delegation, including Suzi Sohair Eleyasin, a young Israeli Druze who works for Microsoft in Global Talent Acquisition, MEA (Middle East and Africa) Region, feel at home. Eleyasin’s work is nearly unparalleled: In 2016, she and her husband co-founded TechSchool College, a non-profit that promotes the engagement of residents in Northern Israel, particularly in the Druze community, with high-tech professions. TechSchool teaches tech skills and entrepreneurship to those living in the Golan Heights and the Galilee. A system networks administrator by training, Eleyasin, who lives in the Druze town of Majdal Shams, wants to apply STEAM promotion models in the U.S. to the Druze community in the Golan Heights.  

“We noticed that Druze in the Golan region were more familiar with agriculture than high tech,” Eleyasin said. TechSchool received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Israel to create TechSchool talent, which, in 2019, taught 80 girls and 20 boys (ages 8-12) from Druze villages web development, including how to create a website and to pitch ideas. One student applied what she learned to create a website for her mother’s small cake business in a Druze village. 

“She was able to connect the small business to the internet, and they got connected to the world,” said Eleyasin. TechSchool also teaches graphic design to unemployed women in local Druze communities. 

Another visionary Druze leader at the table was Dr. Rania Hussein Farraj, head of the High School Education Training Program for Oranim College in Northern Israel. Farraj, who lives in the Druze community in Karmiel, holds three academic degrees from the Department of Education in Science and Technology at the Technion in Haifa, and is also a lecturer, faculty member and pedagogic advisor at Oranim. Farraj is also a member of Al-Maram – a non-profit that promotes scientific endeavors in the Arab sector. 

“Many more Druze girls and women are attending university,” said Farraj. “We are really on the way.” 

Farraj, who often presents at international conferences, serves as a citizen ambassador for Israel’s Druze community, particularly for Druze women. She is particularly proud to have maintained a “co-existence” between her accomplishments and some of the more traditional aspects of Druze culture. 

Fostering high-tech opportunities in more traditional communities forms the bread and butter of Michal Ivgi’s integral work in Haredi Jewish communities in Israel. Ivgi, who is Haredi, founded Babada, an organization that exposes Haredi youth in Israel to science and technology. When Ivgi wanted her then-12-year-old daughter, who was enrolled at a Haredi school, to learn science and technology, she realized no such programs existed at the school. That’s when Ivgi, a resident of Petach Tikva, decided to implement STEAM programs at Haredi schools throughout Israel.

“There was a huge gap between Haredim and tech work and knowledge, and the data showed it. For so many years, people said it can’t be solved. I wanted to prove it’s possible. It’s happening, and it’s amazing.” – Michal Ivgi

“There was a huge gap between Haredim and tech work and knowledge, and the data showed it,” said Ivgi. “For so many years, people said it can’t be solved. I wanted to prove it’s possible. It’s happening, and it’s amazing.” 

Babada (“Baba” means “gate” in Aramaic; “Da” means “knowledge”) offers programs at over 25 schools in 13 cities throughout Israel and has reached 2,500 children in first through ninth grade. In April, the organization offered special math and science classes to fourth-graders in Jerusalem that helped them win a contest in connection with Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe’s visit to the International Space Station. Stibbe will speak to the fourth-graders on the topic, “Lighting Shabbat Candles in Space – the Halacha and Science Challenge.” 

Hani Galitsky, another program participant, was particularly interested in visits and meetings with experts at American museums devoted to the sciences. Galitsky currently serves as director, Education and Guidance Division for the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space (known as Madatech). 

A resident of Kiryat Malachi, Galitsky has devoted her career to STEAM and previously served as STEAM educator and coordinator at Kanot Boarding School. At the school, Galitsky, who also speaks Russian, was able to connect with students who were newly arrived immigrants to Israel from Eastern Europe. Galitsky was born in Russia and came to Israel at age five, and like her counterparts from the U.S. visit, she is deeply invested in promoting STEAM education and career opportunities for minority populations. Visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. was a particular highlight of her visit, she said. 

The final participant, Lili Pergamenikov, is an associate at EdRITECH, a venture capital fund in partnership with the Edmond de Rothschild Group. In her previous role as business development manager at CorrAction Startup, she developed technology to monitor brain signals by motion detection. She was also the former head of AtoB accelerator, the Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Authority of the Azrieli Academic College of Engineering. 

Pergamenikov has led several social initiatives, including a civil organization called “Justice You Shall Pursue,” which pushes for tougher penalties for sex offenders, and Women of Jerusalem, an organization for the advancement of women and social equality at Hebrew University. She lives in Rishon LeZion, and is a major champion of women’s advancement and equality in Israel.

In LA, she was especially moved by a meeting with Donna Sharp, associate dean, Executive Education at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, about authentic leadership in the workplace. “It was very empowering,” said Pergamenikov. “[Sharp] really opened my mind.”

Swerdlow, who hosted the dinner at Shanghai, shares Pergamenikov’s dedication to advancing women’s initiatives. Swerdlow created the Women’s Empowerment Foundation with Israeli activist, producer and entrepreneur Illana Shoshan, who also attended the dinner with her daughter, Ellie Diamant. 

Shoshan is the West Coast general manager for Nostromo Energy, a cutting-edge green technology company headquartered in Israel, with a branch in California, that excels in using sustainable water-based energy storage to turn buildings into “clean energy assets,” according to its website. Her daughter, Diamant, is completing her Ph.D. in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. 

Swerdlow also serves as CEO and founder of Maestro Games, which uses music to build and maintain resilience for first responders as well as military and healthcare personnel to help combat PTSD, depression and other mental health challenges. Its product, “The Last Maestro,” uses virtual technology (VR) and participant gesture-control as a groundbreaking and therapeutic non-pharmaceutical alternative.

 “I believe there is nothing more intimate than breaking bread with those you don’t know because it’s something we all do: we eat, just as we breathe, just as we sleep,” said Swerdlow. “I love hosting the IVCLA delegations from all over the world; it just so happened that this particular delegation of Israeli women working in STEM are close to my heart — because it’s Israel and my ties there.” Swerdlow is especially invested in ensuring that “STEM” permanently changes to “STEAM,” allowing for inclusion of the arts (‘A’) as well.

“We also arrange social opportunities with our members, allowing visitors and Angelenos to get to know one another – breaking down stereotypes and blowing away deceptive information on social media.” – Janet Elliott

In LA, the delegation was also able to tour downtown and Santa Monica at its leisure, gaining a greater sense of the city. “The programs IVCLA creates for innovators from all over the world are a prime example of the impact of Citizen Diplomacy,” said Janet Elliott, president/CEO of the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. “Our programs begin dialogues that would not otherwise be possible. The professional meetings we arranged for the talented women from Israel gave them the opportunity to get to know Americans who are striving for the same goals to improve STEAM education for women and girls as they are. We also arrange social opportunities with our members, allowing visitors and Angelenos to get to know one another – breaking down stereotypes and blowing away deceptive information on social media.” 

With the exception of Pergamenikov, the trip marked the first U.S. visit for the delegation. “The dinner in LA was very meaningful,” said Farraj. “You see the power of connecting with other women and learning from them.” 

For Farraj, another powerful stop on the U.S. visit was a meeting at the Pentagon, where the women met with Louie Lopez, director, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Research and Engineering for the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Female Israeli STEAM leaders visited the Pentagon during their visit to the U.S. April 23 – May 7. Photo courtesy of Hani Galitsky.

The impact of these female leaders’ vision, initiative and hard work has changed the lives of many Israelis, including Ivgi’s daughter, the then-12-year-old who, through her mother’s tireless work, was exposed to STEM education at her Haredi school. Today, she is majoring in computer science and completing her sophomore year of undergraduate studies. According to Ivgi, seven out of the nine girls who attended middle school with her daughter are also studying computer science; each has credited her tech interests to the Babada program. 

At the end of the day, said Ivgi, “It’s all about encouraging entrepreneurial attitudes and twenty-first century skills.”

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