Israeli students visit St. Louis for Clinton Initiative

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative University, held at Washington University last week.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Three Ben-Gurion University post-graduate students were among hundreds of young scholars who spent last weekend at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) on the Washington University campus.

Ellie Nowak, 25, a third-year medical student at the university in Beersheva in the Israeli Negev Desert, described her fellow students at the Wash. U conference as not too focused on the daily conflicts that generally make news.

“Since we were from Israel, people came up to us and said how cool it was we were there,” said Nowak, who is from Buffalo, N.Y. “We were from all over the world. The people there were more educated and focused on solutions” to problems such as environmental sustainability.

Nowak and the two other students brought to the conference two projects that were shaped by their experiences of living in a desert area of Israel, where electricity and fuel for internal-combustion engines arelikely to become increasingly costly.

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Ben Reuveni, a graduate student in business administration, called Ben Gurion University “the most vivid, youngest university in Israel” with many of its 21,000 students from the Tel Aviv area.

The three students were the only ones from Israel. More than 1,000 came to St. Louis from 75 countries to hear speakers, exchange ideas, network and explain how they hope to improve their worlds a bit at a time.

“A lot of business cards changed hands,” said Guy Katz, a fourth-year medical student.

Ben Gurion University covered transportation costs to and from Israel, the students said. They applied for CGI U and were accepted to attend. No other Israeli students were present. Nowak said many did not know of the opportunity to compete to attend.

Katz and Nowak are developing a mechanism whereby moisture in the air can be turned into potable water, a common need in Israel and throughout much of the Middle East. They set up a booth at the CGI U to show how their scheme will work.

Katz, 27, grew up in Ashkelon, about 35 miles from Tel Aviv and a few miles from Gaza. He said he and Nowak hope their concept can be used in Israeli homes – like the ubiquitous solar panels on rooftops – to produce water.

They propose using the change in temperatures, from naturally heated outside air to air cooled by wind, to turn humidity into water, even from relatively dry desert air.

They want to create a system that allows people to be “off the grid” as much as possible, hence the idea of using wind power instead of electricity and compressed gas to create water from air.

So far, they have produced just a few drops – but their project was impressive enough that it was among about 200 singled out for attention before the world student forum of budding thinkers, visionaries and inventors.

The project of Reuveni, a second-year graduate student in business, includes persuading university officials to set up bicycle racks throughout the campus with the eventual goal of turning Beersheva into a zone mostly free of internal combustion engines.

“I hope to have a pilot project on campus for 20 bicycles by the end of the year,” Reuveni said. He estimated the cost at $10,000 when fully realized.

He wants to have uniquely colored bicycles throughout the city and a system of barriers or gates to keep them from being stolen. He hopes to get the money for his project from the city of Beersheva.

Reuveni, 30, was reared in Nazareth Elite, a predominantly Jewish city near the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth. His grandparents are from Iran and Iraq.

The Wash. U weekend, which began Friday and ended Sunday, was his second CGI U. His first was in Austin, Texas in 2009.

“I knew this was the place to be when I have another idea,” Reuveni said.

He said he found the discussions led by former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, inspiring. He singled out the exchange between Clinton and Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and CEO of Square, as one he particularly liked. Dorsey is a graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School.

“Dorsey told how he went from concept to idea,” Reuveni said. “It’s good to hear success stories and be inspired by them.”

Nowak said she loved hearing some of the ideas being touted by other students. For example, she said, an American-born Indian student explained his idea of setting up public toilets in India, where not everyone uses a toilet, to capture the methane from human wastes and use the gas to run generators that produce electricity.

The Israeli students were open to discussing recent political developments in their country.

Both Reuveni and Katz said they have hopes that the newly formed Israeli government will focus on improving the economy. They said when they voted – both for the new center-left Yesh Atid Party – they were not thinking about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

“So far [Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair] Lapid looks promising,” said Katz. “But we Israelis are very cynical.”

Reuveni expressed a similar view: “Most of the people are concerned about the cost of living. I am recently married, and it’s tough to get housing we can afford.”

Both men are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace with the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of part of the West Bank. They are far less so regarding Gaza, where Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, is in control.

Katz said his grandfather used to say, “When you are grown, you won’t have to serve in the Army.

“They really used to say that, because they thought there would be peace,” he said. “Now that’s a joke.”

His grandparents on his father’s side were Holocaust survivors. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Aviad Yafeh, was personal secretary to the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and later director general of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

Both Reuveni and Katz said that President Barack Obama’s speech to students in Jerusalem during his recent trip hit many right notes.  

“He was planting a seed for the next generation,” said Katz. “I liked it,” added Reuveni. “It was good news.”

He said many Israelis felt “a little neglected when Obama went to Cairo in 2009.”

“These are tough choices” the president laid out to the Israeli student audience in Jerusalem, Reuveni said. “This is our reality.”

Both men – Reuveni a tank gunner and Katz a platoon sergeant in the airborne infantry – said they favor a two-state agreement with the Palestinians.

“Will it be a two- or three-state solution?” Katz said. “That’s up to the Palestinians. Gaza is going its own way.”