Teen math prodigy at Technion seeking access to student services

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Gabi Lukacs was just 12 years old last October. But instead of preparing for his bar mitzvah, he entered Haifa's Technion as a first-year math student.

The Hungarian-born youth, who immigrated to Upper Nazareth with his father Janos in 1990, dismisses the suggestion that there's anything unusual about his precocious academic ability.

"I'm just able to understand things quickly," he insists. "Until I actually produce something, you can't say it's anything special."

Still, it's not every day that a boy skips high school, studies on his own for the math bagrut (matriculation), snags a perfect score and then enters Technion, where he not only takes on a full first-year class load but sneaks in an extra computer class.

"I'm not supposed to take a fourth class, but I told them I'm signing up for it anyway," he says, flashing a schoolboy grin.

He's doing well in his coursework, and he's managed to make a handful of friends at the university.

"It's a miracle that he's even sitting in my class," says Professor David Chillag, Gabi's first-year algebra teacher. "He's doing excellently. He's a nice boy, and seems to get along well with the other students."

Indeed, Gabi says, he has no problems with his teachers or fellow students. His only difficulty is with the university administration, and it's a problem that may keep him at home when the second semester begins March 6.

It's a simple, yet daunting, logistical quandary. Because he's registered as a "special" student, Gabi has no access to the services offered to other Technion students. That means no financial aid, no discount for being an excellent student and no room in dormitories.

He gets some financial help from a Jerusalem foundation called Kol Yisrael Haverim, and a stipend from the Absorption Ministry. But his father pays most school costs. That's hard on Janos, a philosophy Ph.D. and architect who taught at Budapest's Polytechnical University but who now works as an interior decorator.

The dormitory problem is more pressing. Gabi commutes four to five hours a day by bus from his Upper Nazareth home, leaving him exhausted.

Four days a week, he rises at 5:30 a.m. and arrives home at 8 p.m., at which time he begins his homework. He sleeps an average of four hours a night.

He's appealed to the dean of students, Menachem Kaftory, for a dormitory room. Kafotory says the boy's situtation presents "special challenges" the university is trying to solve.

"Our goal is to make it possible to Gabi to enjoy both worlds, stuyding at the Technion while still living at home,"Kaftory says.

Gabi complains that the Technion administration treats him like — well, like a child. When the dean's office calls his home, they ask to speak to his father, not to him. Gabi fumes at the insult.

"I can't go to the Student Union, because I'm not a real student. The administration doesn't help me. I may need to find a university with a better atmosphere, where they treat me more normally."

The university adds they arranged for a room for Gabi in Jewish Agency dorms near the campus, but the boy refused the offer, and the school also proposed the boy and his father take a Haifa apartment.

At home in Upper Nazareth, Gabi's bedroom is amazingly neat for that of a 13-year-old boy. "It's not usually this clean," he notes. "You should see it when I'm studying."

On the wall hangs a yellow poster displaying a simple algebraic equation. His collection of classical CDs is neatly lined up next to his stereo. Gabi listens to classical music "from morning to night," he says. His favorites are Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Bartok. The shelves are lined with Hungarian translations of the greatest in world literature. Gabi is reading "Remembrance of Things Past" by Marcel Proust.

In ninth grade Gabi asked Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein permission to leave school and prepare for the math bagrut. He got permission in 10th grade, and studied the next eight months at home.

Although he skipped high school where most students get their first serious taste of history, literature and languages, Gabi doesn't feel he's missing out. His father guides his reading, and the two "discuss everything," Gabi says, including biology, physics, psychology, history and economics But he's still a 13-year-old boy. On his pillow lies a shabby stuffed dog with long ragged ears. It's the only thing he salvaged from his toy collection when he and his father left Hungary six years ago.

"Gabi is quite mature mentally, with a well-developed logical sense," his father says. "But when I look at him, on the outside, I see a young teenager. Still, I'm not worried about him. I'm not afraid that he's pushing himself too fast."

Gabi doesn't have much time for anything else. He has one friend his own age, from the school he attended until last January, and he has two friends at the Technion. And he has his classical music.

He's now planning to take the five-point English and physics bagrut in June, in case he decides to apply to a foreign university, and he's learning English on his own.

"I don't know what the future will bring," he says.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].