On the evening of March 15, Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, hosted “Virginia is for Israeli Tech Lovers,” the latest event in this year’s “Gesher With a Twist” series. The headline speaker was Sheryl Schwartz, COO of CareTek, LLC, who has a résumé replete with technology and consulting roles. Recognized as a “Technology Titan” by Washingtonian Magazine, Schwartz is a board member of American Friends of Hebrew University and passionate about Israel’s tremendous ability to use technology research to address the world’s problems.
Gesher’s resident shlicha (Israeli cultural ambassador), Noy Peri, introduced Schwartz and shared her own experiences serving in an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) unit focused on high-tech. Her anecdotes about the experience of working in a unit of “nerds” often left the audience howling with laughter.
Many people have written and spoken about Israel’s tech industry and the factors that make it special (leading some 220 multinational firms to set up research and development [R&D] centers in the country); but for Schwartz, one key aspect is the way in which Israeli researchers focus on basic research, and then apply the fruits of their own research to a plethora of practical solutions and products. This differs from the American and European technology scene, in which basic research and practical applications are often isolated from each other.
The resulting products coming out of Israel now are little short of miraculous. Schwartz highlighted several; perhaps the most impressive was the OrCam, a set of glasses with an integrated camera, computer, and earpiece. Vision-impaired wearers simply point with their finger at an object they cannot clearly see, and the OrCam will describe it to them through the earpiece and even read text aloud. Other products mentioned included advanced video analysis for security systems, 3-D printing of colored glass, and new varieties of vegetables that can be grown even in the barren Sahara. As Schwartz put it, “It is a country that is smaller than New Jersey, fewer people than New Jersey, and they have more than carried their weight on the global stage.”
“This event brings together two of our core interests,” commented Gesher principal Dan Finkel. “One being the deep bond [we have] with Israel; the other being preparing our children for a future that we can only really begin to imagine, with the accelerating pace of technological change.” He was glad to share that discussion with an adult audience: “Part of what we do with ‘Gesher With a Twist’ is try to give a Gesher-style educational experience for adults.”
This sentiment came up repeatedly. To Philip Blumenthal, a parent and board member, the Gesher with a Twist series “embodies ... the holistic education that [we] try to provide,” to adults as well as children. And as board chair Vicki Fishman put it, “As a day school, obviously we’re educating children, but we really see ourselves as the center of Jewish education generally, and so when we can provide that to the community at large, that’s a plus.”
Gesher’s focus on technology and Israel makes it special, but it is also geographically unique, as Northern Virginia’s only accredited Jewish day school. Julie Tonti, admissions officer at Gesher, thinks the school is “amazing because it brings together the Northern Virginia Jewish community in a way that no other institution in Northern Virginia does, in that it’s trans-denominational and ... a community center.”
To Schwartz, the most important takeaway from her presentation was that the Israeli tech industry is not merely about generating revenue. It is about “healing the world,” she said.