Peninsula rabbi-turned-computer whiz returns to Israel

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When Rabbi Yossi Ohana arrived in this country from Israel five years ago, he had only the most basic knowledge of computers under his kippah.

But the director of Judaic and Hebrew studies at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School returned to his native land recently with an arsenal of computer know-how, and contacts with Silicon Valley heavies.

Ohana, a shaliach (emissary) sent here by the World Zionist Organization, acquired most of his newfound computer knowledge initiating and heading the school's computer center. Now a year old, the state-of-the-art center at the Sunnyvale school may be Ohana's greatest legacy.

"He's probably the individual that got me convinced that the school was ready to build a professional computer center," said Eric Benhamou, president and CEO of the data-networking company 3COM and a parent of two sons who once attended SPHDS.

Benhamou donated $150,000 to fund the center, which includes 13 computers, nine CD-ROM drives, a big-screen television and software.

Through such equipment, students have direct access to the Internet and its host of databases. They have their own World Wide Web pages, which allow them to display photos of themselves, along with personal facts they wish to share. They have electronic mail, allowing them to communicate with fellow computer users around the world. And of course, they've got plenty of cool electronic computer games to fill their free time.

The lab has introduced "a degree of excitement among children and parents," Benhamou said, "the feeling that the information superhighway is not going to pass them by."

Benhamou said he knew right away that Ohana was the man to get the center up and running.

"I've been amazed to see how much of a quick study he is," Benhamou said. "He clearly doesn't have any formal study in the computer sciences, but he's extremely high energy and creative."

As Ohana talked about SPHDS just before returning to Jerusalem with his wife, Orly, and five children, that energy came through.

Stressing the value of high-tech education, the 36-year-old rabbi spoke with a seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm about what the computer center has allowed students to do.

They have researched reports. They have created multimedia explanations of Torah portions. During the bombing of the northern Israel town of Kiryat Shmona, they sent e-mail to their besieged Israeli peers.

At least one SPHDS student used e-mail to help heal family wounds.

"Her parents divorced and she was living with her mother," Ohana explained. "The fact that she had an e-mail address made it easy for her to build a bridge back to her father. That was really touching my heart."

In addition to the computer lab, Ohana brought other innovations to the school.

He initiated an annual eighth grade trip to Israel, which is preceded by a preparatory class on Israeli history and partially funded by noontime hot dog lunches prepared and sold by eighth-graders.

Also in the spirit of educating students about Israel, Ohana made sure that the entire school observed events important to Israel life, such as Israel Independence Day and Yom HaZikaron, the day when Israel's fallen soldiers are memorialized.

"For me, it was important to have these connections," the rabbi said.

At the same time Ohana was busy investing time and energy in SPHDS, he was also serving as the first rabbi of the Orthodox Bar Yohai Sephardic Synagogue in Sunnyvale.

Under his tutelage, average attendance at services nearly tripled, growing from about 12 to 30, and enthusiasm grew with the increase in size, according to Benhamou, chair of Bar Yohai.

"He has been an outstanding spiritual leader for our minyan," Benhamou said. The rabbi, he added, infused the school and synagogue with "high energy and integrity."

As he heads home, Ohana looks at Bar Yohai with pride, as one would a child venturing out on their own.

"I feel like I really built something here," he said.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.