June 26, 2019

Teaching Math to Israel’s ‘Invisibles’

Photo by Ofer Amram.

Shai Gul walked into the oversized shed masquerading as a wedding hall and was shocked at the level of abject poverty he encountered.

This was Jisr az-Zarqa, Israel’s poorest town and the last remaining Arab coastal enclave, but Shai still was astounded to discover that there was barely enough food to feed the wedding guests, most of whom were wearing clothes riddled with holes.

Shai was treated as the guest of honor — Hanan, the bride, felt she owed him a deep debt of gratitude. A cleaner, Hanan was one of many “invisibles,” as Shai refers to them, at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, where he served as a lecturer in the department of mathematics. Over the years, Shai began taking notice of these people.

“I asked myself, How did they get there? Why don’t I pay them the same attention I give to others? What’s the difference between my life and theirs?” he said.

His curiosity compelled him to begin striking up conversations with them, and ever so slowly these disenfranchised women — and a sprinkling of men — began opening up to him. The majority, he learned, lived below the poverty line and had been forced to drop out of school at a very young age to contribute to the family income.

To help, Shai convinced them to spend their lunch breaks attending classes that he would give on basic arithmetic. “I began by teaching percentages. I’d see them nodding their heads as if they understood. But by the third lesson, I realized something was missing,” Shai said.

Shai convinced them to spend their lunch breaks attending classes that he would have given on basic arithmetic.

He called on one of his students to give him the answer to one plus one. She was silent. He then asked her what her dream in life was. This time, she answered without hesitation: She wanted to become a cashier. He asked the rest of the women in the class. They all said the same thing. They wanted to become cashiers in a supermarket.

“I’m a mathematician. My nature is problem-solving. This was a problem. How do people who don’t know one plus one become cashiers?” he said.

The same day, Shai called up the branch of Israel’s largest supermarket chain that was closest to the Arab village that many of the cleaners came from. It took him months of hard work — a delicate cocktail of chutzpah and cajoling — until he received a commitment from the district manager to hire these women as cashiers once they had graduated from Shai’s evolving course.

But Shai’s ecstasy crumbled when his protégés told him they had no interest in working at the store. Many of them preferred the 4 a.m. wake-up and commute to Bar-Ilan — as long as it meant they could just be far from home.

It was to be the first of many Icarus moments that Shai would experience as Eretz, the nonprofit he founded, took wing. Yet now, two years after its founding, more than 30 volunteers have taught arithmetic, basic literacy and even computer skills to 120 janitorial staff members — mostly Arabs, Russians and Ethiopians — in seven hospitals and academic institutions around Israel.

Eretz, the name Shai chose for his nonprofit, means “land” and also doubles as the Hebrew acronym for “academics serving the public sector.” It dovetails with a far more poetic sentiment.

“From a young age, we Israelis are raised to think about our contribution to this country. But we’re also raised to believe that the real salt of the earth is the blond, blue-eyed Israeli from Sayeret Matkal,” Shai said, referring to the elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces. His brown eyes — courtesy of a Bukharian father and Yemenite mother — seemed far away as he continued. “But that model is skewed. I see it every day with my students — people who have struggled so hard just to be here. They want to be given the chance to be a part of this country’s society as much as anyone else.”

As for Hanan, the Arab bride from Shai’s debut class who harbored dreams of becoming a cashier, she ended up chasing dreams she never knew she had. Despite having never made it to high school, Hanan was accepted into a fully accredited college to study early childhood pedagogy.

Russian-Jewish billionaire gives out $22 million in science prizes

Russian-Jewish  billionaire Yuri Milner gave out nearly $22 million in Breakthrough Prize Awards for contributions to life sciences, math and physics.

Milner was joined Sunday night at a televised ceremony in Northern California’s Silicon Valley by prize co-founders Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, and his ex-wife, Anne Wojcicki; Alibaba founder Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

The prize was established three years ago in an effort to make the sciences more popular.

Animator Seth MacFarlane hosted the black-tie event at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Singer Pharell Williams performed.

The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, worth $3 million, was presented to Ian Agol of the University of California, Berkeley and the Institute for Advanced Study.

Five Life Sciences prizes of $3 million each were presented to Edward Boyden of MIT; Karl Deisseroth of Stanford and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; John Hardy of University College London; Helen Hobbs of the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The prize in Fundamental Physics, worth $3 million, was awarded to five experiments investigating neutrino oscillation. It will be shared equally among all five teams, comprising 1,377 scientists.

Several other prizes, including the New Horizons awards that recognize the achievements of young scientists, were presented.

Milner announced in July that he would dedicate $100 million to a 10-year project launched with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Math skills add up to success for day schools

Day schools are typically known for their comprehensive approach to Jewish studies, but not as much for the secular education they offer. Now, a few Jewish day schools in Los Angeles have proven that they’re just as strong at academics as they are in religious curriculum.

This year, both the Conservative Pressman Academy and Orthodox Maimonides Academy, which cover early childhood through eighth grade, placed among the top schools in Los Angeles in the Math League, an annual contest measuring middle school students on mathematics principles and ranking schools based on scores. In the Los Angeles region, Pressman came in third (out of the top five schools) in the sixth and eighth grade, and second in the seventh. Maimonides placed fourth among sixth- and eighth-grade students, and third among seventh-graders. 

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school at Pressman, said, “Oftentimes there is a question of whether or not the level of general studies is at the same level of other schools. The results indicate that, at least in math, our schools are competing at a very high level.”

Each year, more than 1 million students in the United States and Canada participate in the Math League. Schools have the option to select which of their students participate or, like Maimonides and Pressman, may require that all students compete. On the individual level, Pressman students Daniel Schrager, Daniel Ornstein, Mira Berenbaum, Avi Bernat-Kunin and Noah Mermelstein received some of the top scores in the region. 

Pressman students have competed for more than a decade, and Allison Sostchen, general studies director at Maimonides, said her school has been part of the contest for the past 12 years, and that the faculty and staff put an emphasis on mathematics “because it’s essential from kindergarten straight through eighth grade. Students need it as a basic life skill.”

She attributes Maimonides’ success in math to the interdisciplinary and competitive approach that the staff takes to the subject. Third-graders learn math by starting their own businesses in the classroom and balancing accounts, and each week, a tricky math question is displayed in the hallway for everyone to solve. “They’re always being pushed every step of the way,” mathematics department chair William Walton said. “They do [the problems] for the sheer joy of math.”

Walton said that in each grade at the school, math is seen as a subject that’s “fun and challenging. It’s about taking a problem, no matter how complex, thinking clearly and deliberately about it, and working your way through it.”

Like Maimonides, Pressman places special attention on math. In particular, Malkus said, his teachers prepare the middle school’s 105 students for high-school mathematics. Math has “sparked an interest in students, and their desire to do well in it has increased over the past few years,” Malkus said. “They take a lot of pride in their work.”

Pressman middle-school general studies teacher Carla Schultes added, “This year, our students performed so well. They will, hopefully, continue to do well in the future.” 

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’

Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.

Kids Page

Count the Days

On Friday, May 27, we will celebrate Lag B’Omer. We remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who used to hide from the Romans in the forest and secretly studied Torah. If Roman soldiers came along, they would whip out their bows and arrows and act as if they were hunting.

In Israel, children light bonfires and play with toy bows and arrows as part of the celebration.

Shield Thyself

Like Rabbi Akiba’s students, you can have a tree branch shield.

First, you must go out into the forest (or to your backyard). Find two curved branches and use tape or thick string to make them into a hoop.

Now tie a long string to the hoop. Stretch it to the other side and loop it. Now stretch it

to another spot on the hoop and loop it.

Keep on doing this and it will start to look like

a bicycle wheel, and then like a dreamcatcher

or spider web. Keep on doing this until there is

no space left between the string.

Passover Again?

On Iyar 14, which falls this year on May 23, some people celebrate a holiday called Pesach Sheinei, or, The Second Passover. This was for people who, for reasons they could not control, were not able to bring the Pesach offering to the Temple. Decode the message to describe what this holiday was for these people. (Hint: It’s what everyone wants when they mess up the first time around.)

Here is the message:

t evdxbs djtbdv

A=t,B=c, C=d, D=s, E=v, F=u, G=z,H=j…

Do the math!

Can you solve this?

A X 3 = B

B + 3 = C

C/3 = 4

4 – D = E

E X 3 = A

What are A and D?

(Hint: It has to do the meaning of one of the words in Lag B’Omer.)