Fourteen students from the Technion, Israel's premier institution for science and technology, recently got a taste of American student life during a two-week visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The trip was part of a program called Hibur (connection), a joint initiative between MIT Hillel and the Technion that connects like-minded students and faculty on both sides of the ocean to share their research, forge personal and professional networks and potentially participate in academic-exchange programs.
The MIT students planned a jam-packed schedule for their Israeli friends, including visits to the university's famed laboratories and local high-tech companies, meetings with noted professors and MIT administrators, tours of campus and Boston and day trips to nearby Rhode Island and New Hampshire. They also celebrated Shabbat with the MIT Jewish community and met with leaders from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston's Jewish federation, the American Society for Technion and MIT Hillel board members and alumni.
"Hibur is one of those really great cross-cultural experiences. Despite our differences, we really have a lot in common," MIT student David Broniatowski said. "Being able to interface with other cultures is incredibly powerful.
The brainchild of MIT students Sam Korb, Chaim Kutnicki and Maxim Shusteff, Hibur began earlier this year at the same time MIT Hillel Director Miriam Rosenblum was helping CJP develop ties between local students and those in Haifa, Boston's Partnership 2000 sister city and the home of the Technion. CJP introduced Rosenblum to two students leaders at the Technion, and "the rest has been magic," she said.
Student leaders formed committees at both schools to recruit participants and pair them as e-mail pen pals so they could learn more about life in the other country and get to know one another better on a one-to-one basis. The committees also organized a series of videoconferences during the spring semester in which students and faculty presented their research. The lectures were open to all students at each university, but each videoconference was extended for the Hibur participants to meet as a small group, plan future phases of the project and discuss the similarities and differences of life in their respective countries.
"After months of planning, it was very exciting to meet in our first videoconference," Rosenblum said. "We were smiling and waving to each other."
The MIT students made the first in-person visit, traveling to Israel at the end of May to experience Israeli student life and tour the Israeli offices of large American corporations, like Microsoft and Intel. The Technion delegation timed their visit for when the American students would be back on campus so they could completely immerse in the MIT culture and meet as many students as possible.
"It's a great pro-Israel tool to have MIT students meet Israelis on campus," said Kutnicki.
Typical of technology-minded students, the Hibur participants spent much of their time together planning the next phase of the program. MIT, unlike most large American universities, does not offer a large number of study-abroad opportunities, and the American and Israeli students lobbied university administrators to help them develop options for MIT students to study and conduct research at the Technion, and vice versa. Though plans are still in the initial stages, the students are optimistic about the future.
"It seems like we know a good bunch of people here to help us advance the project," said Danny Albocher, a second-year student at Technion.
"It's very difficult to get large institutions to sign on to such a plan, but we've had very positive responses," Kutnicki added.
Beyond academic exchanges, participants also hope to expand each group's Web site and develop friendly, innovative competitions between the institutions. And the personal connections among the students, of course, will always be a centerpiece of the initiative.
"To open your eyes to a new culture, no matter what culture, you gain something for yourself," said Nadav Aharony, the Hibur coordinator at the Technion.