Israeli college head in S.F. to seek Upper Galilee aid

A dusty three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, Tel Hai College faces problems that are light-years away from Israel's more urbane institutions.

For one, the campus in one of the country's most remote and impoverished regions. For another, it is a region under siege, and Syria and Lebanon lay claim to the very land beneath the school.

Mordechai "Moti" Shechter, the college's president, describes his school's Upper Galilee locale as the Mideast equivalent of the dust bowl — there's no industry, unemployment is rampant and all the young people are heading off to the big city.

"The metropolitan areas like Tel Aviv are so powerful, so attractive and everyone gravitates toward that region," said Shechter, who was in San Francisco last week to meet with representatives of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

"If we don't create some kind of center to withstand this gravitational force and prevent this decline, [the Upper Galilee] will decline into even worse economic and social condition, young people will leave and it will become a depressed area par excellence."

While Upper Galilee towns like Kiryat Shmona will never be as cosmopolitan as Tel Aviv, Shechter thinks Tel Hai College can help save the region from becoming Israel's Appalachia. Working with a biotechnology research institute adjacent to campus, the school aims to develop an industrial park.

"This would enhance employment in these kinds of high-tech industries, which the region needs very, very badly," said Shechter, an agricultural economist who graduated from the University of Houston and received his doctorate from Iowa State.

"The college is not just a place where people get degrees and go back. It's a place where the idea is the youngsters — some from within the region, some from without — come, study, find employment in the region and settle there. The makeup of the population will also change. We'll have more engineers, more people with economics degrees, more families, schools and cultural activities."

Yet serving as an "agent of socioeconomic change in a remote region," as Shechter puts it, does not come cheap. And when it comes to funding universities, the Israeli government is locked into a per capita system that offers little aid to little schools like Tel Hai.

"The smaller your number of students, the more restrained you are," said Shechter of his roughly 1,000-student university. "The more students you have, the more degrees of freedom you have in terms of budgeting."

The JCF, whose partner region is the Upper Galilee, has helped ease Shechter's burden, granting the university $50,000 toward scholarships and $20,000 in research funds for Tel Hai's faculty. Additionally, JCF leaders Neill Brownstein, Eve Bernstein and Martin Stein were recently named to the school's board.

"The federation has decided to assist the college," said Shechter. "They realize that by doing so, they help promote the entire region."

And Shecter is working to ensure that Tel Hai really does serve the entire region. The university has an outreach program for Arab students, who make up 14 percent of the student body. This is lower than Shechter would like, but it is well over the national average. Tel Hai also has a special focus on female Arab students.

"Especially in a Muslim village society, many of the parents are not willing to let their daughters go to a university and mix with boys there. This is characteristic of ultra-Orthodox Jews as well. But they have their own institutions. Arab villages don't have their own yeshivas," said Shechter. "What they want is a kind of educational program that would be based in the village."

As a result, Tel Hai teachers have held classes in villages and the college has also bused some students from the village to campus. While those are good first steps, Shechter says neither solution has worked well.

"This situation is not amenable to quality education. You have a group of students who, to begin with, come from a poor educational background, who all sit in the same class and don't intermix, rather than intermix with other students," he said. "We have to find some kind of compromise. We want to bring students to campus. Yet we have to find ways to meet the parents' demands. These are things you have to deal with in a place like Israel. It's a part of life."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.