Paperwork, global travel, meetings — Zahava Bar-Nir has been pretty busy since starting her term as the first Israeli woman president of the American Technion Society Oct. 1.
But her involvement with the organization — the U.S. affiliate of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — began long before she stepped into her new role in early October, succeeding Scott Leemaster.
Bar-Nir, who was born in Tel Aviv, resides in Gwynedd Valley with her husband, Zack, whom she smilingly recalled meeting by chance at the airport on the way to Israel. They were both waiting for the same person before flying and they got to talking. He was studying engineering at the University of Maryland at the time. (He now has his own software company, which Bar-Nir declined to name.)
After her parents, who were in the Haganah, moved the family to New York — her father was sent as an Israeli Military Industries representative — and Bar-Nir finished her time with the Israel Defense Forces, she worked at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations.
Hardly speaking English at the time, she recalled that it was a very “interesting experience.”
After moving to Washington, D.C., Bar-Nir first worked for the Israeli Military Attaché Office, which works to “establish the defense cooperation policy between the U.S. and Israel” according to the Israeli embassy’s website, then for a computer software corporation. Her work with software technology was initially how she became involved with ATS.
“I got a call from the local director of the ATS who said, ‘Would you like to meet?’ ” she recalled.
At first, she wasn’t interested, but she later became involved with both ATS and with Technion — whose campus is located in Haifa — after she learned more about what the Israel Institute of Technology does.
The institution has grown from a school where only so many students interested in engineering could be accepted because of its size, to a larger campus with more to offer — from dormitories for families to liberal arts classes.
Strangers to the university might be more familiar with the products that have come from its students, such as a swallowable pill with a camera that allows doctors to see what’s going on inside the body.
And if you went to visit, you might even see her name: She and her husband established the Computer Science Center of Excellence in 1996.
“That was the key, was becoming a donor,” she said of her involvement. She was asked to sit on the board, which she also didn’t want to do at first, but after attending the 21st Century Technion Technology Conference in New York in the late 1990s, she changed her mind.
At the conference, a new technology was introduced: teleconferencing.
“What I found amazing was the people,” she said. “Forget about the project — the project was mind-boggling. But the people — you have the groups, the professors from the Technion, you meet these people […] that you feel you’re so lucky to know them. Then you meet the people, the lay leadership, that not only are giving money but time and love and dedication — that blew my mind.”
From serving in lay leadership roles to president of the Philadelphia chapter, she has been there to watch as the ATS has grown from a small nonprofit when it started 75 years ago to the largest “Friends of” organization of an Israeli university.
She is helping it grow as Technion expands globally, including through a partnership with Cornell University with the establishment of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York and with Shantou University in China.
Bar-Nir will be taking a trip to China in the coming weeks to work on this new partnership, which she is very much looking forward to.
However, her goals as president extend beyond just Technion’s global expansion.
“I have two major goals,” she began, one of which is expanding lay leadership, where she herself was once involved.
“Going forward, it has to be on the table. Anybody — and I’m not talking about just ATS — anybody that goes to any other ‘Friends of’ or whatever,” she said, can donate “time, help open doors, help in any way that you can and give at whatever level you can, because that’s leadership. Leadership is stepping up. I was on leadership and development committees for years — you can’t expect people to step up if you don’t do that yourself. Lead by example.”
The second goal, she continued, is to connect more with Technion alumni who live in the U.S.
“I don’t believe we have enough of them involved,” she said.
Part of that is because the culture of Technion is different from American universities, she said, where students know in the beginning that “this is my alma mater, this is who I’m going to support.”
In Israel, the culture is starting to shift to that attitude, she said. But while they are here, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, she wants to connect with the alumni.
“There are so many of them there, I’d like to see if there’s a way to reach them,” she said. “I’m not asking for money; I’m asking to connect.”
The ATS does not ask for money either; it doesn’t do annual giving campaigns, but instead encourages donations from whoever can give and however much they want to give.
“My philosophy [is] writing a $1 million check is the same as someone else writing a $1,000 check because you’re talking about what the effort is for this person,” she said. “Every single contribution, every single thing counts. It not only counts, but it’s being recognized and being appreciated.”
One of the highlights of her job — and the roles she held before — is the chance to work with others, whom she calls her “friends” because she always looks forward to seeing everyone, which includes presidents of the other 17 national chapters.
“We’re all supporting each other; if one is busy — we all consult each other on some idea,” she said. “It’s teamwork from beginning to end.”
In her spare time — when she has some — she focuses on her family. Her parents still live in Long Island and she sees them on the weekends. Her children live in New York and Maryland and she loves visiting with her four granddaughters.
When they each turned 10 — save the youngest one, who hasn’t hit that milestone yet — she took them individually on a trip to Israel with her husband. She recalled one trip where they flew in a helicopter — she has the selfies on her phone of her husband and granddaughter with big smiles to prove how fun it was.
No matter what position she is in, she enjoys what she does and hopes that others see the effects the Technion has on the world.
“You can see that I like what I do,” she said, smiling. “The money goes to Israel, but the impact is everywhere.”
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