May 12, 2016

Before the sixth Talpiot class, the commanders of the program had not graduated from the program and they weren’t completely in tune with this new breed of intellectual super soldier. But even once the commanders starting coming from the Talpiot ranks, as Tuttnauer did, there was still tension between adolescent and adult, student and teacher. “As a commander, I had difficult moments with my cadets, but it was much easier for me than for previous commanders. You simply understand the dynamics because you witnessed them. They would complain daily, weekly, about the classes, the learning materials, the extra-curricular plan, the quality of food, quality of rooms, the cleanliness of rooms, the burden of guarding the building, flaws in building security – whatever, you name it. As a commander, you know there are recurring themes. That’s the way it is; that’s the way it’s always been.”

The cadets would ask whiny questions like any other teenager. “Why are we guarding the building?” Tuttnauer would answer dully, “Because we are soldiers and that’s what soldiers do. You’re given two hours a week of guard duty. That doesn’t hamper your studying. The issue is closed.”

As we finish speaking, Tuttnauer washes, disinfects, then strides into the operating room. A small patient whose life lies in his hands is waiting.

The doctor’s description of the Talpiot training reflects the goals set for each of the three years of the program. Would you be able to handle the rigors of Talpiot? Here are the expectations Talpiot has for its cadets:

First Year. Goal: Build foundations for resolving problems by learning advanced mathematics, physics and computer science.

  • Basic training period of eleven to twelve weeks, followed by two semesters of studies lasting up to thirty-four weeks.
  • Five to six additional weeks of military orientation, visiting the different units and branches of the IDF.
  • Completion of an officer training course.

Second Year. Goal: Reach a high level of aptitude in math, physics and computer science. (Almost a third of Talpiot graduates earn a degree in computer science.)

  • Thirty-six weeks of studies.
  • Up to three months visiting various branches of the IDF to learn more about their problems and their need for solutions.
  • Rigorous paratrooper training.

Third Year. Goal: Bring all education and training together; sharpen leadership and academic skills. This includes a broad range of courses in the sciences including electronics, aerodynamics and system authentication, as well as military technology.

  • Acquire a solid background in military engineering, radar, antennas and military communication.
  • Take broader range humanities and social science classes at Hebrew University, including history, art history, philosophy, Jewish thought and Arabic studies.
  • Decide on a discipline and an expertise.
  • Interview and audition for posts within the Israel Defense Forces.

“The project” spans all three years of Talpiot training. A few times a year, they’re asked to develop and then present a project that solves a problem in the national defense spectrum. In essence, it’s a warm-up exercise, designed to teach them all of the rigors and stages they will later encounter when trying to solve real-life defense dilemmas.

For “the project” they come up with an idea that solves a defense problem, create a budget for it and then produce it. They present their problem and the way they’ve solved it to a group of army officers who are brought in to judge and discuss the projects. On several occasions, officers have been impressed enough with a certain project that they decided to actually develop it. In addition, sometimes producing a project leads to a post-army appointment for a Talpiot graduate.

Over the years, it’s become commonplace for second-year students to introduce themselves to the IDF’s top brass by working on these problems and the solutions. Past projects, which will be discussed later, include an early mock-up of the Iron Dome short-range missile defense shield that has been remarkably effective in knocking missiles out of the air before they reach their targets inside Israel. Another innovation, the Trophy – a tank-mounted device that automatically fires at an incoming projectile in order to protect the crew inside – had its origins in the Talpiot program.

All Talpiot classes are assigned advisors to help them through the program from beginning to end. It is his duty to serve as a contact person and liaison between the students, the army and the university professors. At the beginning of the program, founder Felix Dothan served as an advisor, a role later carried on by various professors at Hebrew University. The heads of Hebrew University’s mathematics, physics and computer science programs also take on outsized roles in advising the cadets and serve as a go-between with the army. Hebrew University deans and rectors have also been integral in the program from its onset. When those three years come to an end, the cadet gets a promotion as well as that coveted degree in physics, math, computer science or all three. After graduating, most Talpiots will then continue their formal education. Many continue to study at Hebrew University while doing their army service over the next six years. The Weizmann Institute of Science is another popular destination. Talpiots who are accepted there often study for masters or doctorate degrees in biology and complex physics. On one floor of Weizmann, Talpiot students have taken over a line of offices where they are studying and experimenting with biotechnology, genetics and bio-pharm. A third choice for many Talpiot students is Tel Aviv University, where they study advanced engineering and business administration.