Most Israelis are discharged from regular army duty and then go to see the world. They go to India. They trek through Nepal. They escape to Thailand. In fact, there are so many Israelis in parts of those countries, street signs, store and hotel markers are in Hebrew. One shopkeeper in India was shocked to find out there were only about six and a half million Israelis. He thought that since his town was constantly overrun with men and women from the Jewish state, there must be hundreds of millions of them. Other young Israelis go to South America for months at a time, hiking through the Andes. Many go to both Asia and South America. When they return to Israel, they may register in one of Israel’s nine universities, many of which are world renowned, including Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion in Haifa, and, of course, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Others might go to one of several dozen colleges in Israel.
But because Talpiot cadets serve at least nine years in the military, they immediately begin studying for their academic degrees at the age of eighteen, when they enlist. When they finish their coursework at Hebrew University, they have their bachelor’s degree in mathematics, physics and/or computer science. This advantage gives them peace of mind, knowing that they won’t have to start their studies after they’re out of the military.
When the army is paying for you to study, however, you don’t have the luxury of falling behind. In Talpiot, if you do drop back, you’ll get kicked out.
Speed has always been an important part of the program. Because Talpiot students get fewer weeks to study than their university counterparts, the academic program moves faster. One reason for that is simply because the cadets are in the army and they have other things to do. Another reason is that the army is intentionally training the cadets in how to think faster.
There is no magic to making a student learn faster. The way it is done is to emphasize group learning. The thinking is that if you’re with other cadets in a military-like setting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you bond. When part of the group moves faster, the rest of the group will keep the pace.
The speed of the coursework is much quicker than at a regular university. The cadets train and learn as a class. Academic competition is not part of the program and there is no cheating in Talpiot. Many of the professors allow students to share work, as they encourage cadets to help one another. The thinking is that each cadet brings different kinds of strengths from different backgrounds, integration is greatly encouraged. That emphasis on teamwork helps create high levels and higher speeds for development and for learning the course materials.
But sometimes that speed can be a problem and the 25 percent dropout rate attests to the challenge. Even some of the top Talpiot recruits who went on to become some of the most successful Israelis of all time have complained Talpiot’s coursework moves too fast.
Marius Nacht is a co-founder of Israel-based Check Point Software Technologies. Their Internet protection software defends almost all of the companies in the Fortune 500 from web-based attacks. Nacht is a graduate of the second class of Talpiot. He was born in Romania while his parents waited anxiously for the Romanian government to grant their family exit visas. In the 1960s, Romania held its Jewish citizens hostage. If they wanted to leave, the Jewish Federation of North America had to cough up a $5,000 ransom for every exit visa. His parents had started the immigration process a decade before the paperwork finally came through.
Nacht was three years old at the time, and does not recall his first days in Israel. But he does remember growing up in a rough, industrialized part of the coastal town of Ashkelon. He says his family’s situation gradually improved to the point where they were eking out a middle-class existence. Back then, standardized testing wasn’t exactly part of the norm, so Nacht’s family didn’t realize Marius had a special academic gift – and neither did Marius.
His father insisted that he attend a vocational high school, a place where he could learn a trade. Marius attended ORT, one of many programs funded by the global Jewish community. He says, “I wasn’t interested in it. I was doing what he told me to do. We studied many things, including electronics.”
In 1980 an army recruiter came around looking for the brightest students. It was rare for the army to look beyond the established high schools in the major population centers of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. And it was even rarer, in those early days, for the Talpiot program to recruit someone from outside of those areas. But from Marius’s class, two students were selected for Talpiot testing.