(July 9, 2018 / JNS) Cranes are raising Israel’s skyline north to south, east to west, with the entire country increasingly connected by fast and reliable rail. Whereas much of the growth can be described as suburban sprawl extending from key cities, development in Haifa tells a different story: It’s one of pragmatic renewal and remarkable innovation. Thanks to generous new financial contributions, the University of Haifa is embracing a city in need with innovative ventures, paving new roads towards establishing an urban exemplar for idyllic peace, diversity and prosperity in the Jewish state.
“Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, and Haifa works,” says Karen Berman, chief executive officer of the American Society of the University of Haifa (ASUH), reciting an old adage derived from the British Mandate period. Haifa was originally developed rapidly as the territory’s primary port, oil refinery and important rail hub. The brilliant architecture of this epoch and earlier periods earns Haifa UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite these treasures, Berman admits that Haifa is a sleepy, working-class city. “Haifa has a lot of unrealized opportunity,” she tells JNS. “Physically lovely, it is incredibly underdeveloped compared to the rest of the country.”
Berman joined ASUH in 2015 after a long career at the helm of YRF Darka, an organization tasked with managing secondary-educational facilities that serve nearly 15,000 students in Israel’s most disadvantaged communities. “Investing in Israeli education is investing in the country’s survival,” Berman remarked at the time of her transition to ASUH. Keenly aware that Israel’s chief natural resource is the country’s human capital, she relates that her new role leading a philanthropic organization geared at garnering donations to enhance the University of Haifa’s endowment requires a broader view of Israel. “I do think Israel has moved beyond the existential threat,” she says. “Now we’re looking to see what kind of society we want to be.”
“You need jobs and housing, a middle class and things the middle class likes. You need security,” says Berman.
Medical innovation and strategic investment
The quest to provide these societal necessities lies at the heart of Haifa’s efforts to modernize, and is prompting the university to take a leading role facilitating change.
“We’re creating Israel’s new middle class, where everyone can feel a part of the ‘Startup Nation,’ ” says University of Haifa president Ron Robin. He presides over an institution experiencing a significant generational shift. Because the university enforcers a mandatory retirement age, “the founding generation is leaving,” he explains. “We’re seeking young, ambitious faculty that have for the most part studied abroad in America or Europe, and attracting them to a livable, affordable city.”
His team is currently leading a major fundraising campaign to provide the necessary resources to attract qualified professionals. He estimates that in addition to increasing enrollment by 3,000 to 4,000 students, the number of faculty will grow by at least 20 percent.
Berman and Robin agree that the university’s primary objective must be to establish a prominent downtown presence. “We have to come down from our Ivory tower,” says Berman, acknowledging that as beautiful as the Mount Carmel campus is, the university is remote and isolated there. Thankfully, “low-priced real estate makes [the downtown] ripe for development.”
The university has identified numerous lots for purchase and renovation; these properties will ultimately house the burgeoning academic and research programs.
New construction is already underway. An $18 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has established a strategic alliance between the University of Haifa, the Rambam Medical Center and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build the Helmsley Health Discovery Tower on the Rambam Medical Campus. The 21-story tower will house the University of Haifa’s Center for Translational Research in Health Sciences and Public Health, as well as research centers for health and life sciences, evidence-based nursing and Rambam’s clinical institutes in ophthalmology, gastroenterology, dentistry, neuroscience, cancer, cardiology, diabetes, nephrology, human genomic medicine, medical devices and minimally invasive surgical advances. The tower will also include Technion facilities focusing on innovations in biomedical engineering, startup incubation and an exhibition center to host conventions.
While an “if you build, it they will come” mentality is driving large-scale development in Haifa, leaders like Berman and Robin are also conscious that strategic investment is necessary to make the city attractive from a cultural standpoint.
Haifa “needs things for student life, an art scene, restaurants and port-area development,” says Berman. She is particularly excited that Amazon is building its Israel headquarters in Haifa, and that the Shanghai International Port Group, a Chinese company, will soon take the reins operating a new private harbor beginning in 2021.
A model for diversity and peaceful coexistence
“The main thing is for us to immerse ourselves in the city,” says Robin, describing a program that enables students to directly take part in the fulfillment of this mission.
“While we are an educated city, there are pockets of poverty,” he says, therefore “we give students financial incentives to live in [poorer] areas; we pay for their flat, and the students open the door to the children in their neighborhood, providing tutoring and other services to underserved communities.”
This open-apartment strategy has already had an important impact alleviating financial stressors among the student body and establishing what Robin calls “common denominators,” where higher education is an accessible force uniting the local population.
“It’s our mission to reflect Israeli society,” says Berman, pointing out that Haifa has long been considered a model for diversity and peaceful coexistence in Israel.
The university emphasizes academic excellence and is eager to attract foreign students. “Being global is necessary,” emphasizes Berman, noting partnerships with China and the ERASMUS program in Europe that regularly bring 1,200 to 1,500 international students to Haifa, many of whom are not Jewish. “Haifa’s diversity is a draw. We have programs that nobody else has: marine studies, a premier Holocaust-studies program, a master’s [degree] in child development geared for students from Africa. Our semester abroad, Hebrew ulpan and Arabic program are all very immersive.”
In the short term, fundraising and smart real estate investments on the part of the university will determine Haifa’s ability to revive and flourish as a cultural hot spot in Israel. “We preserve and nurture the past with an eye towards the future,” Robin reflects on the importance of breathing new life into key areas like the historic German Colony and the port. Of course, he notes, “our entire development project hinges on our proximity to the train.”
As for fundraising, ASUH seeks to raise $180 million in the United States in the next five to seven years to purchase key properties.
Berman says this is a modest goal compared to the Technion budget, but in the end, she notes, “it’s not really about the building, it’s what you put inside.”