Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will soon produce 20% of its energy needs on the Marcus Family Campus from solar energy. Recently, solar panels were installed on the roofs of three buildings on campus in the first stage of the initiative.
The project is estimated to cost NIS 2 million (approximately $736,000 Cdn). Once completed, it will replace more polluting fuels that are typically used to power buildings. The university is expected to recoup this investment within a few years as it reduces its energy expenses.
Dr. Daniel Farb has donated a small wind turbine called the Tulip, developed by his company, which will charge laptops and phones from wind energy.
In April 2022, BGU announced it would stop investing in companies that produce oil and coal and move those investments and all future investments into alternative energies and investment vehicles governed by ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles.
The university was awarded Green Campus status by the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2010 and has been among the top universities worldwide in green rankings. Bike racks, electronic recycling and solar and wind-powered charging stations can be found all over campus.
BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research have been studying environmental issues for 50 years. Leveraging these strengths, the Goldman Sonnenfeldt School of Sustainability and Climate Change was dedicated in May 2022. It brings together more than 150 labs on the university’s three campuses to tackle these issues.
– Courtesy Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, BC & Alberta Region
Ben-Gurion University Canada chief executive officer Mark Mendelson passed away in Montreal without warning on Nov. 14 at the age of 73.
Over the years, Mendelson’s imprint has been felt throughout BGU Canada. Helping create new purpose and hard results, connecting communities with Ben-Gurion University and Israel, his life, experience and leadership were transformative: the organizations he touched, the chapters he helped grow and the voices he helped raise, were the product of a life dedicated to the singular purpose of protecting and nurturing, manifested in boundless energy and enormous reach, helping BGU Canada grow.
“He took what was a small but respected organization to a national powerhouse,” said Montreal and Ottawa executive director Simon Bensimon.
A leader who gave people around him the space to excel while daring them to wow him, Mendelson’s energy, enthusiasm and resilience were infectious, and served his gift for reaching out and making valuable connections between donors, volunteers and stakeholders. “A character who had character,” said B.C. and Alberta Region president Adam Korbin. “He was a blessing in my life, a mentor, confidant and friend.”
As much of Canada’s nonprofit sector slowed and then scrambled for relevance and community engagement during the pandemic, Mendelson helped steward BGU Canada through and maintain the interest, enthusiasm and commitment towards the cause.
His legacy for BGU is omnipresent in the organization and on the ground in Israel. For the national organization, this is embodied in the new archives building in Sde Boker, for which Mendelson marshaled his best efforts and drive to realize and, ultimately, stood before as great affirmation of one of the crowning achievements of his BGU Canada career.
Mendelson understood the importance of each national chapter. “From the outset, he was committed to putting Vancouver on the map and was determined that we should hold a gala,” recalled David Berson, executive director, B.C. and Alberta region. “His love for BGU and Israel were first and foremost – alongside fishing and food!”
The Montreal-born-and-raised son of Dr. Hyman and Audrey Lynne Mendelson, Mark spent a lifetime dedicated to Israel and Jewry – as a kibbutznik, as an IDF paratrooper, as a social worker, an entrepreneur and then as a leading advocate. He held fast in his belief in Israel, securing her future through grit, diplomacy, and the Jewish people’s greatest currency: knowledge.
“Much of my success as president, and much of what BGU is today, is because of Mark’s complete dedication to the task of building Ben-Gurion University,” said BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz.
At Mendelson’s funeral in Montreal, Chamovitz recalled this “large man wearing a loud plaid sport jacket, bearing a gift of fresh salmon whose smell permeated the air, and having one of the most endearing smiles anywhere.” It was their first meeting. “I had been president for only three weeks and, somehow or another, no one had prepared me for Mark Mendelson.”
Mendelson had a keen understanding of the ongoing relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, and he followed through on his promise to Chamovitz that, despite Canada’s modest Jewish population, BGU Canada was poised to make a major jump in its philanthropy: “We punch way over our weight.”
“The university, the Negev, Israel and dare I say the world,” said Chamovitz, “is a better place because of him.”
Prof. Simon Barak of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, right, is coordinating all the plant biologists and imaging specialists. (photo from CABGU)
Can plants grow in a barren landscape such as the surface of the moon? If so, what types of plants? Could enough plants grow to support a future moon colony? These are the types of questions the Lunaria One consortium has set out to answer.
An experiment proposed by Lunaria One, known as Aleph, was selected by SpaceIL, a nonprofit aerospace organization, to be included as one of the payloads on board their Beresheet2 lander. The Beresheet2 mission, scheduled to launch in mid-2025, will consist of two landers, landing on each side of the moon, and an orbiter that will continue to orbit the moon for up to five years. Aleph will consist of a tray of seeds and dehydrated plants, a device that will water them, heaters and cameras to monitor the plants.
Prof. Simon Barak of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR) at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is coordinating all the plant biologists and imaging specialists. They include three Australians, one South African and two of his colleagues from BIDR at Ben-Gurion University: Prof. Aaron Fait and Dr. Tarin Paz-Kagan.
“The chosen experiment has enormous value both for our life here on earth and for humanity’s progress in space exploration,” said Shimon Sarid, SpaceIL chief executive officer. “Examining plant growth under extreme conditions will help us as far as food security is concerned. Plant growth in extreme conditions will help humanity in the long run. We are happy to cooperate with Lunaria One and are very excited.”
“The motivation for this mission comes from humanity’s passion to explore and see life thrive in barren landscapes,” explained Barak. “We see the Aleph payload as an important step towards our eventual goal of providing plants for food, medicine, oxygen production, CO₂-scrubbing and general well-being for future astronauts inhabiting the moon and beyond.”
“The central value guiding this project is that space exploration is for everyone; we don’t want a future where only autonomous and remote-controlled machines inhabit realms beyond earth, but where humans can live and thrive,” said Lunaria One director Lauren Fell. “The key to this is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there. The Aleph project aims to open up the science and engineering behind growing life on the moon so that anyone can be involved.”
Growing plants on the moon means overcoming several challenges, such as massive temperature swings on the way to the moon, a water supply for the plants, and high temperatures when growing the plants. The plant types will need to be those that can germinate and grow to an appropriate size for imaging within 72 hours of deployment.
The research team expects their plant selections to be relevant for vertical farming and resource-challenged landscapes here on earth.
The project also has a strong citizen science component. Parallel science experiments will be carried out by amateurs (for example, high school students) and professionals to compare growth to that on the moon.
Additional universities participating in Lunaria One include Queensland University of Technology, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian National University, in Australia, and the University of Cape Town, in South Africa.
“The earth is finite,” said Barak. “Its resources are finite. So humanity’s future depends upon reaching the stars.”
– Courtesy Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
The Diamond Foundation is leading the way in contributing to JWest, with an historic $25 million gift – and community donors have matched this gift with another $25 million.
The Diamond Foundation’s matching gift is the first philanthropic contribution to the project and it is the largest donation ever made by the Diamond Foundation. Completing the match means $50 million toward the JWest capital campaign target of $125-plus million.
Alex Cristall, chair of the JWest capital campaign, had this response: “I want to thank the Diamond Foundation for this transformational gift. A project of this magnitude will not be possible without the tremendous generosity demonstrated by the Diamond Foundation, as well as philanthropic support from the community at large. It is our hope that the Diamond Foundation’s incredible community leadership will serve as inspiration, and we are now calling on others to work with our team to champion this project in an equally impactful way.”
The Diamonds’ gift will have a significant impact on the plans for JWest, providing a social, cultural, recreational and educational asset for all. This is the most extensive project in the history of the Jewish community in Western Canada and it is estimated to cost more than $400 million. Bringing it to life will require philanthropy, government funding and astute financing.
Gordon and Leslie Diamond, who are honorary JWest campaign co-chairs and members of the Diamond Foundation’s board, shared: “We are pleased to be the first family to make a significant contribution to JWest’s capital campaign. Our family has called Vancouver home for almost a century, and we have always believed in contributing whatever we can to ensure there is a bright future for our children and their children.”
The announcement builds on the $25 million funding provided in 2021 by the B.C. government.
“Mazal tov! I’m so pleased that our government’s shared mandate commitment of $25 million and a $400,000 investment in redevelopment planning has been bolstered with philanthropic support from the Diamond Foundation and community,” said Melanie Mark, Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak, minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport. “These generous contributions underscore the importance of a renewed Jewish Community Centre to 22,590 Jews and all people living in this community. It speaks to the power of working together to shine a light on our province’s diversity and inclusion.”
The new space, once complete, will deliver a state-of-the-art community centre, expanded space for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, double the current number of childcare spaces, expanded seniors’ programming, a new theatre, a relocated King David High School and two residential towers that will provide mixed-use rental housing (a portion of which will be below-market rates).
“JWest is the amalgamation of decades of work, and the fact that we saw our gift matched so quickly sends a clear signal that the community stands behind this project,” said Jill Diamond, executive director of the Diamond Foundation. “The Diamond Foundation has had a unifying focus to assist and advocate for initiatives in the Vancouver area that help improve the quality of people’s lives. The impact JWest will have on the Jewish community and the surrounding Oakridge community is undeniable.”
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The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation has added two new members to its board of directors: Mervyn (Merv) Louis and Michelle Karby. They join an impressive group of volunteers, who for the past decades, have donated both their time and funds to care for the elderly of the Vancouver Jewish community.
Louis, a certified public accountant, emigrated with his family from South Africa to Canada in December 1978 and joined a small accounting firm in Vancouver. In the summer of 1979, the firm was acquired by Grant Thornton LLP. In 2016, Louis retired as a partner of Grant Thornton LLP, where he worked for 38 years, of which 33 were as a partner specializing in audit, accounting and business advisory services. Louis advised and worked with clients in many different industries, including manufacturing and distribution, real estate investments and construction, entertainment, and professional practitioners.
After his retirement from Grant Thornton LLP, Louis worked as the chief financial officer of Plotkin Health Inc. and MacroHealth Solutions Limited Partnership until retiring again, in August 2020. During these years, he successfully helped merge a U.S. partnership and a Canadian company to form the parent partnership of MacroHealth Solutions Ltd. Partnership, a medical cost management and solutions provider in North America.
Louis has been married for 46 years and has two sons. He and his wife love to travel and are particularly fond of cruises; they have toured North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Southern Africa. Louis is an avid sports fan and, while his playing days are over, he loves watching all sports, notably hockey, golf and rugby.
Karby is an experienced wills, estates, trusts and corporate lawyer heading up the wills and estates group at Owen Bird Law Corp. She helps clients plan, build and protect their legacies. Prior to developing her expertise in this area, Karby spent many years in and out of a courtroom honing her skills as a commercial litigator.
While born and raised in Vancouver, Karby’s adventurous spirit and love of travel translated into 18 years studying and working in places that included Montreal, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, Melbourne and Sydney. Now settled in Vancouver with her husband and two teenage sons, Karby enjoys the beautiful natural environment, being close to her family and giving back to the community that she grew up in.
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Kimberley Berger has joined Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver as its new outreach worker in the regional communities. In particular, she will focus on White Rock, South Surrey and New Westminster.
Berger has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, focusing on community development and family support. She has held many roles, ranging from frontline work to executive director of South Vancouver Family Place. She also dedicates time to supporting parents whose children are undergoing cancer treatment at B.C. Children’s Hospital with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation.
Berger believes that a strong sense of connection makes both individuals and communities more resilient. Building relationships is central to her role at Jewish Federation and in her own personal life with her family of four in East Vancouver.
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This year, the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library raised more than $30,000 for the library. These funds will help it purchase new books and supplies for programs. Thank you to all of the Friends of the Library, and to the volunteers who helped make the fundraising a huge success.
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The Israeli Ministry of Education has granted Boys Town Jerusalem an Award for Excellence. The school ranked in the top 10% of the 838 high schools examined over the 2021-22 academic year.
In releasing its findings, the Israel Ministry of Education cited Boys Town Jerusalem (BTJ) for reaching outstanding achievements in the academic and social realms, as well as for instilling crucial ethics and values. BTJ principal Yossi Cohen noted that the prize reflects the ministry’s findings of the extraordinary efforts by BTJ instructors to spur students to reach a high academic level, avoid dropout and advance to Israel Defence Forces enlistment and higher education.
This marks the third time in the past decade that Boys Town Jerusalem has been awarded the prize for excellence, and the first time in which the school has reached the top-echelon rank. The Ministry of Education Award for Excellence includes a monetary reward for teachers among the highest-scoring schools.
In saluting BTJ’s instructors, Cohen stressed the COVID-related hardships over the past two years, which have demanded exceptional efforts to keep students focused and excelling despite the increased illness, poverty and strife they face at home.
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A ceremony dedicating the new home of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Communications Branch School for Software and Cyber Security was held in August at the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) located at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, IDF chief-of-staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of the communications branch Col. Eran Niv, Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and other officials and guests were in attendance.
The school’s new location will enable collaboration with BGU and the high-tech companies in the ATP. The school is the first of the communications branch units to move south as part of the national move to strengthen the Negev following the government decision to move the IDF south. The branch’s new main base is under construction alongside the ATP.
The move will assist in the preservation, development and empowerment of the technological human-power in the IDF while creating opportunities and a space for new collaborations in the south.
Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University honouree Martin Thibodeau, B.C. president of RBC Royal Bank, speaks at the June 9 gala. (photo from CABGU)
Less than six decades ago, the city of Beersheva, in Israel, had more camels than people. Now, it is home to one of the world’s most innovative post-secondary institutions – Ben-Gurion University – and 400 British Columbians packed a Vancouver ballroom June 9 to help launch the university’s new School of Sustainability and Climate Change.
The Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) event at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel honoured Martin Thibodeau, B.C. president of RBC Royal Bank, and featured Prof. Daniel A. Chamovitz, president of Ben-Gurion University (BGU), in conversation with event emcee Robin Gill.
Since taking the helm of RBC in the province, in 2018, Thibodeau has continued an involvement in Jewish community affairs that began earlier in his career, in Winnipeg and later in Montreal. He credits his mother with instilling in him a respect for multiculturalism and a connection with the Jewish experience.
In 2018, RBC Royal Bank created a cybersecurity partnership with BGU, investing in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to develop advanced cyber-security techniques. Two years later, RBC British Columbia sponsored the first two research fellowships at the new School for Sustainability and Climate Change and, later this year, Thibodeau will lead a summit to Israel, bringing a group of Canadian business leaders to BGU. He is engaged with a host of community organizations, including the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, United Way of the Lower Mainland, B.C. Children’s Hospital, Science World and others. He is also co-chair of RBC’s Diversity Leadership Council.
“I’m always amazed at the dynamic and progressive work that continues to be produced by the scholars and the teams at Ben-Gurion University,” Thibodeau said at the June event. “The world owes a great deal of debt to the outstanding advancements that have already contributed to how we live and work as a society. I am excited to see what the future holds in the hands of these amazing and brilliant individuals.”
Thibodeau, who oversees 7,000 employees in the province, was introduced by Lorne Segal who, with his wife Melita, co-chaired the event. Segal gave an emotional testimonial to his late father, Joseph Segal, who passed away 10 days earlier, at age 97. Segal said his father had not attended many events in the past several years but had been looking forward to being present to honour Thibodeau.
In his presentation, Thibodeau thanked the Segals for their support, and for their presence in a time of mourning. Thibodeau paid credit to Joe Segal, who called him soon after he arrived on the West Coast, invited him for lunch and offered advice and an open ear.
In recorded greetings, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, called Thibodeau “far more than just a businessman. He is a leader, innovator and community-oriented friend of the Jewish people, of Israel.”
Chamovitz, the university’s president, noted that David Ben-Gurion’s dream of a university “at the gates of the Negev Desert” was intended to uncover secrets: “How to make energy from the sun, water from the air and agriculture from the infertile sands, taking advantage of resources that, until now, were going to waste.”
The changing climate has made innovations such as solar energy, desalinization and agriculture in inhospitable places answers to urgent questions that affect lands far beyond the Negev.
“We all of a sudden realized that what we thought was a local problem is now a global imperative and people from all over the world started coming to Beersheva to learn from our expertise,” said Chamovitz, who grew up in Pennsylvania and has been president of the university since 2019. The Abraham Accords have opened new doors to cooperation between BGU and Gulf States that need these technologies, he added.
The School of Sustainability and Climate Change was announced last year and, so far, 25 departments are collaborating on planetary life-and-death topics. (See previous articles at jewishindependent.ca.)
“My simple challenge was to get them to collaborate in order to really leverage our expertise into something that’s much greater than the sum of each of those departments,” said Chamovitz. Even the department of Hebrew literature is involved.
“Hebrew literature did a big seminar on climate fiction, understanding how climate change is influencing what people write about and how this literature is influencing public opinion about climate change,” he said.
While BGU was created with the development of the Negev Desert in mind, the work they are doing is global, with impacts reaching British Columbia, said Chamovitz.
“You cannot look at British Columbia divorced from the world,” he said. Flooding and heat domes are processes that are happening worldwide. Mitigation and prevention must take place both locally and globally, he said.
Chamovitz credited the leadership of Thibodeau and RBC for making it easier for BGU to go to other major donors to fund the new school.
Another new development at the university, he said, is a high-tech park dedicated to advanced research in cybertech, agricultural technologies and green energy.
CABGU B.C.-Alberta board member Eli Joseph chaired the event and board member Rachelle Delaney was the convener. Si Brown, president of CABGU B.C.-Alberta, opened the event. The corporate sponsorship committee was chaired by board member Adam Korbin, and David Berson is CABGU regional executive director.
Terry Beech, member of Parliament for Burnaby North-Seymour, brought greetings from the federal government. Representing the government of British Columbia, Minister of Finance Selena Robinson spoke of her family’s connections to Israel.
Martin Thibodeau, RBC’s B.C. region president, will be honoured at the Ben-Gurion University Gala Dinner June 14. (photo from RBC)
On June 9, Ben-Gurion University president Daniel Chamovitz and members of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) will visit Vancouver to recognize the launch of its new School of Sustainability and Climate Change (SSCC) and the local supporters who have helped make its opening possible. In particular, Royal Bank of Canada and Martin Thibodeau, RBC’s B.C. region president, will be honoured at the event.
SSCC opened last October at BGU’s Be’er Sheva campus, where its growth has been rapid. Seven months old, the school currently offers two undergraduate degrees and four graduate-level environmental science-related degrees. Its two graduate fellowships, which have supported work in renewable energy and smart city design, were funded by RBC.
“The RBC Research Fund at BGU’s School of Sustainability and Climate Change [is] being established in Martin’s honour, [and] will enable undergraduate and graduate students to be trained as, and pursue meaningful careers as, climate change innovators, entrepreneurs and policy experts,” said David Berson, who serves as CABGU’s executive director for the B.C. and Alberta Region. The funding that is raised at the gala will help further SSCC’s research programs.
SSCC’s mandate isn’t just to address environmental concerns at home in Israel, said Chamovitz. It will have a global reach, as well. BGU is currently working to cement research partnerships with universities and countries that have similar interests in addressing climate challenges. Chamovitz said RBC’s investment in its new school will provide a pathway to meeting that global need.
“RBC was one of the early supporters of SSCC, and this support was essential for leveraging subsequent support,” he said. “The Royal Bank of Canada believes in us,” and that support has served as an encouraging model for other companies to invest in BGU’s programs as well, he said.
Lorne Segal, president of Kingswood Properties and director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, who is an honorary co-chair of the June event with his wife, Mélita Segal, said corporate sponsorship is crucial to startup programs like SSCC. He said corporate support is also vital to finding answers to environmental challenges like global warming.
“Sponsorship from leading businesses and industry leaders does provide imaginative solutions to complex issues impacting our people and the planet,” he said. “Without significant and generous sponsorship support, this crucial work, simply put, would not be possible.”
Segal said supporting initiatives that bring about positive change is part of Thibodeau’s nature.
“Martin Thibodeau truly is a lifelong builder of community,” said Segal. “He is deeply praised by Ben-Gurion University for his commitment to the cause of finding solutions to climate change. It is truly remarkable how much he and RBC Royal Bank have done to enhance the capacity of the Ben-Gurion University community programs and agencies, and advance the conversation on Canada’s transition to a net-zero economy.”
Thibodeau’s support of Canadian Jewish communities and of Israel goes back decades. Originally from Quebec, he served as RBC’s regional president in Montreal until he moved to Vancouver. He oversees some of the largest – and smallest – branches and more than 4,000 employees.
In 2015, while working in Montreal, Thibodeau volunteered as a co-chair for Quebec’s largest multi-day walk for women’s cancers, held by Pharmaprix, to raise money for research at the Jewish General Hospital. “I have been involved with the Jewish community for almost my entire RBC career,” he told the Independent.
He is a strong supporter of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and their community initiatives, and he has been to Israel several times. It was in 2014, said Thibodeau, that he and his wife, Caroline, visited Be’er Sheva and learned of BGU’s environmental research. “[I was] so inspired by the research [and] the innovation,” he said, noting that it wasn’t hard to get behind the creation of a school that was working to find solutions to climate concerns.
“It’s right there in front of me every day,” he said. “I am a proud father of three children and I believe we have a responsibility to make sure that our climate can continue to thrive, and well beyond my lifetime. It is my personal belief that we need to do that today more than ever.”
Thibodeau said it’s been an interesting journey since that first visit to BGU in 2014. “It’s become such a tough priority for the world,” he said of climate change. In Canada, among other things, he supported RBC’s Blue Water Project, which helped provide clean water access to Canadian communities.
Still, Thibodeau is a reticent honouree. He admits that he is uncomfortable with the idea that he will be the guest of honour at a gala, even if it is for a cause he loves. “I’m very humbled,” he said. “I don’t like to have that kind of spotlight on me.” But, he said, raising money for research that might one day create a safer and better environment, that is something he will gladly get behind.
The gala will also acknowledge Lorne and Mélita Segal, who are well-known for their philanthropy and other work. Both have been recognized by Capilano University with honorary doctor of letters, and Lorne Segal has a doctor of laws (hon.) from the Justice Institute of British Columbia. He was inducted into the Order of British Columbia for his work as founding chair of Free the Children’s WE Day Vancouver and as chair of the Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Awards. The Segals regularly open their home to fundraising galas.
“When Lorne and I built our home, we didn’t really do it for ourselves but, rather, to share it with the community,” said Mélita Segal. “Whether it was Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, Arts Umbrella, Chor Leoni, JNF [Jewish National Fund] or WE Charity … it has been a great joy for us and very fulfilling to give back and share in this way.”
Berson described the Segals as “tireless builders of community, leading by example while creating opportunities for people in the business world to make a difference in the lives of others. Ben-Gurion University, Canada, is genuinely fortunate to have their leadership for this event and for our organization.”
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Sustainability and Climate Change have been experimenting with alternative ways of irrigating trees, in this case, by floodwater. (photo by Dani Machlis/BGU)
“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigour of Israel shall be tested,” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, predicted in 1955.
The country was not even a decade old. Ben-Gurion was trying to inspire a growing population of immigrants, including Holocaust survivors, to realize their collective potential – to not just embrace a new home, but to build a new, resilient future. That legacy, he maintained, would be found in the most unlikely of places: in the harsh expanse of the country’s southern water-poor and undeveloped desert. But their hard work, he insisted, could one day transform Israel.
“In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles,” he said.
Today, his vision for the Negev lives on at the university that was founded in his name. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev sits, not coincidentally, at the northern tip of the desert. Some 13,000 square kilometres of semi-arid, rocky terrain make up the Negev, punctuated by dry riverbeds and desolate vistas. It’s on the cusp of this wilderness that Israel’s first School of Sustainability and Climate Change (SSCC) was established last October.
This June, Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will be holding a gala dinner in Vancouver to raise funds for the SSCC’s ongoing research. Co-chaired by Melita and Lorne Segal, the event will honour Royal Bank of Canada’s B.C. regional president, Martin Thibodeau, for his community-building efforts.
According to BGU president Daniel Chamovitz, environmental research has always been a part of BGU’s mission. Water reclamation, sustainable food production and creating plant species that can survive in adverse environmental conditions have been continuing themes of study since the university’s inception in 1969. Establishing a school that could serve as an umbrella for diverse areas of climate and sustainability research was a natural progression.
“We are the engine, by necessity, of development and change in the Negev,” Chamovitz said. That existential motivation has not only led to new ways to desalinate sea water for industrial purposes and engineer new foods, but new collaborative opportunities with countries experiencing climate impacts. The university is home to three campuses that house climate- and sustainability-related studies, as well as a business park with more than 70 multinational companies. It’s also become fertile ground for Israel’s start-up industry and research collaboration.
Chamovitz said countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Morocco are looking to partner to solve common environmental challenges. Desertification, the erosion of arable lands driven by a changing climate and urbanization, now affects more than one-sixth of the world’s population. There are also real-time challenges in the Middle East, where dry lands predominate but research experience may be limited.
“The Abraham Accords here have been essential for the growth of the school,” said Chamovitz. It’s not only opened doors for political alliances, it’s fostered new research partnerships for institutions like BGU, he said.
“For 50 years, we have been learning to live in our desert,” he added, noting that what was once seen in Israel as a hyper-local challenge – how to live in a desert – has become a concern for an increasing number of countries.
This month, a delegation from Morocco’s Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P) arrived in Israel to discuss a new research partnership with the university. The collaboration, which will focus broadly on addressing food insecurity, demands for smart agriculture and alternative energy options, will also lead to educational partnerships with UM6P. “They are very excited,” Chamovitz said. “We already have our first students [from Morocco].”
But international collaboration isn’t the only byproduct of the SSCC. There’s growing interest within Israel, as well.
“[The] school has become the magic dust which influences everything,” Chamovitz said, noting that departments and researchers without any seeming connection to climate change and sustainability are identifying ways to explore environmental subjects.
“One of the most surprising and fulfilling outcomes,” he said, “is that our department of Hebrew literature.… That’s when we knew we had succeeded – when Hebrew literature became part of the school.”
Prof. Noam Weisbrod, who directs SSCC’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, estimates that about 70% of BGU desert research, in one way or another, touches on topics related to climate change and sustainability. The list of departments is diverse, ranging from biology and medical sciences, to environmental geography and earth sciences.
“The idea is to team up and create a force which is focusing on climate change and sustainability and their impacts in different angles and different directions, and to enable multidisciplinary research” that attracts students who can lead the next generation of research into sustainable ways to combat climate change, Weisbrod said.
In February of this year, the International Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.
“Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change,” the IPCC stated, noting that “current unsustainable development patterns are increasing exposure of ecosystems and people to climate hazards.”
“Diminishing resources is a real challenge,” said Weisbrod, adding that the solutions may lie in how we manage those precious resources. “There is a lot of research on how to get more crop for drop of water. I like that sentence, ‘more crop for drop,’ because this is what we’re trying to do – to get the maximum crop for minimum resources,” he said.
The latest IPCC report suggests humanity is on the right path. Countries like the United Arab Emirates are taking action to protect water resources and reduce climate change impacts like desertification, steps that are part of BGU’s cooperative strategies with UAE.
According to Chamovitz, many of these advances wouldn’t be possible without investors that are willing to support sustainability initiatives. He noted that RBC was one of the SSCC’s first donors and has been important to the school’s success – in 2020, RBC, British Columbia, sponsored the first two research fellowships at SSCC.
Chamovitz will be a special guest at the Ben-Gurion University Gala Dinner for Sustainability and Climate Change on June 9 at Fairmont Pacific Rim. Tickets for the event are available from bengurion.ca/vancouver-gala-2022.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Since 1970, the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 68% – or more. (photo from CABGU)
Over the past 24 years, Living Planet Report has been published biannually by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund. It highlights the major declines that some 20,811 vertebrate populations, representing 4,392 species monitored around the world, have experienced globally. The 2020 report (which is the latest one) showed that, on average, the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles declined by 68% between 1970 and 2016.
As large as that decline is, a paper published in the journal Nature last month by a group of scientists based in Israel – Drs. Gopal Murali and Gabriel Caetano from Ben-Gurion University were lead authors of the paper – shows that it might greatly underestimate the situation.
As part of their research, the authors analyzed the overlap of the monitored populations with protected areas. They then compared these to a random sample of locations and the placement of the global network of protected areas. They found that the populations sampled in Living Planet are much more likely to be found inside protected areas than would be expected to occur by chance.
“This is truly alarming,” said Caetano. “If populations inside protected areas – where we focus a lot of our conservation efforts – are doing so badly, those that reside outside protected areas are probably worse off. The true situation of nature – mostly not monitored or protected – may be much worse.”
The authors highlight the need for proper accounting of the status of nature when making generalizations (as they have done in their paper). However, they also advocate for greater monitoring of populations and species in different locations and stress that many animal populations and natural environments will be lost forever without concentrated and direct action.
The world is experiencing massive transformations that are expected to intensify in the coming decades and have fundamental and dire consequences for the natural world. Prof. Shai Meiri from Tel Aviv University, also a co-author of the Nature article, said, “Rather than discourage us from action, we feel that our work should be viewed as a call to arms. Rapid and comprehensive changes in how we view our relationships with nature are needed – and the onus is on us to make sure they happen before it is too late.”
– Courtesy Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, B.C. & Alberta Region
Most everyone on the planet has now heard of mRNA, thanks to the vaccines against COVID-19 from Pfizer and Moderna, which are based on messenger RNA. But, before mRNA was used to address COVID, research was conducted into how it could fight cancer. Now, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have discovered a key connection between mRNA, peptide proteins and tumour progression.
Messenger RNA codes for different proteins, each with a unique function. There are both “long” and “short” peptides. Until now, scientists were not sure if short peptides had any biological function.
Prof. Etta Livneh of BGU’s Shraga Segal Department of Immunology, Microbiology and Genetics has shown that single short peptides in fact have a very important role – as a kinase inhibitor that can slow tumour growth and invasion, cancer cell survival and metastasis.
Proteins (and protein kinases in particular) propagate signals that carry instructions to the cells and dictate cell fate. There are more than 500 different kinases in the human body.
With cancer, a kinase erroneously tells the cells to divide and reproduce in a rapid and uncontrollable manner. But the flipside is also true: if a kinase can be inhibited, it should block the proliferation of cancer cells.
And that’s “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Livneh, whose discovery has been a decade in the making. “Now that we know that at least some peptides have a biological function, we can begin to discover the roles of many more.”
Kinase inhibitors are already one of the hottest areas of cancer research, in some cases replacing chemotherapy. Livneh’s research will allow scientists to better understand how to control this cancer-fighting technology.
The research was supported by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation and published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
Israel21cis a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev ranks among the top 50 universities graduating successful entrepreneur company founders from its undergraduate programs, according to Pitchbook, a financial data firm that publishes annual data. BGU moved up two spots from last year’s rankings, marking its third consecutive year on the top 50 list.
BGU has graduated 314 founders whose companies have raised a total of $8.3 billion, according to Pitchbook. Among the top five companies led by BGU entrepreneurs in capital raised are Deel ($630m), Fireblocks ($492m), Exaware ($420m), Fabric ($336m) and Hibob ($277m).
BGU’s entrepreneurial focus is led by Yazamut 360°, a suite of program offerings designed to enhance BGU’s academic curriculum and infuse entrepreneurship into the DNA of a BGU student. Yazamut 360° established Cactus Capital – Israel’s first student-run venture capital fund. It has also created two accelerators, one focused on technology entrepreneurship (Oazis) and one on e-commerce. Oazis pairs faculty members with chief executive officers to create companies through BGN Technologies. The accelerators serve as a resource for all entrepreneurs on campus through professional mentoring, financial consulting and technological consulting.
The 2021 Pitchbook university rankings are based on the number of founders whose companies received a first round of venture funding between Jan. 1, 2006, and Oct. 31, 2021.
– Courtesy Canadian Associates of BGU, B.C. and Alberta Region