2016-05-12

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.

Marius was intrigued by the exams. Acceptance in Talpiot meant more to him than just the opportunity to be part of this new and exciting part of the Israeli army. It meant he had been absorbed by the country he moved to as a boy; that his intellect had been recognized, though he came from the depressed town of Ashkelon, a town often ignored by Israel’s established elites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

But once he was in the program, he wanted out. “The other guys were very, very smart in terms of math and physics, and I was not at the top of the class as I had been in high school. And it was more competitive than I expected. The five top guys would elbow the others. ‘Come on, why are you asking that stupid question? The professor just said it five minutes ago, why are you asking again?’ We knew that the first class, the year before ours, started with thirty students, but a year later only twenty were left. So I was sure I was going to be kicked out. I finished the first term with a lousy academic average of 65. To me it was evidence that I should drop out – and I wanted to. Why continue? I was just prolonging my military service instead of doing the things I really wanted to do.

“So I went to Hanoch Tzadik, the guy that you have to talk to if you want to leave the program. He was a psychologist. I explained to him that I’m not that good. I was getting a lot of homework and not even getting half of it done by one in the morning.” Tzadik (who later became one of Israel’s best known professors of psychology and a motivational coach to executives) convinced him not to quit. He told Nacht he had put a lot of tension and pressure on himself and that’s why he couldn’t concentrate. He made him promise that every other day he will run around the campus, five or six miles, a minimum of three times a week. Nacht recalls, “Because I was much cooler about it and not pressing myself, my average grades jumped from 65 to 85. I figured if that’s the trend, I might even finish with a reasonable average – and I stayed on. Hanoch Tzadik was a very important person in my life and obviously made a huge impact.”

Tzadik is an appropriate name for a psychologist who helped so many people that would later become crucial to Israel’s security. The word tzadik in Hebrew means “righteous.” It is often a title sometimes given to biblical figures. In short, a tzadik is someone who lives by his faith.

Hanoch Tzadik notes that for most of the Talpiot students, it was the first time in their lives they needed help and to some it was a real crisis. “Their main problem was dealing with difficulty, not the coursework.”

“It was my main job to help them,” he affirms, but there was no blanket-solution for each cadet with a problem. “I didn’t really tell them anything at first, I just listened to them. I had to make them believe they will overcome the problems, and it’s a very personal thing. I really believed that most of them could overcome it. The ones that left generally did very well later, but it wasn’t the right time for them. These were not failures. They just weren’t ready for this kind of thing. “

Getting through Talpiot was never easy, even for those who thrived on the challenge. One such person is Doctor Aviv Tuttnauer, one of a few Talpiot graduates to go to medical school after finishing his army service. He’s an anesthesiologist specializing in pediatric surgery, and he agreed to be interviewed on a busy day of surgery. We meet in the hospital lobby at Hadassah Medical Center and we talk in the locker room as he puts on his operating room scrubs. So that he’d never forget it, Tuttnauer sets his locker combination to the number representing a certain isotope of uranium that can sustain a fission chain reaction. (For him, that’s a memorable figure!)

He explains what would happen during surgery, the goal of the operation and his role. The surgery will be on a two-year-old boy who has an artificial heart valve needing repair. It will be Dr. Tuttnaeur’s job to sedate the child.

Around us, doctors are listening to our interview. The cardiothoracic surgeon stops his pre-operation procedures for a moment and looks at Doctor Tuttnauer. He asks in Hebrew, “Who is the person doing the interview and what’s it for?” Tuttnauer replies, “It has to do with my Talpiot experience.” The surgeon asks in alarm, “Isn’t that all top secret?” Tuttnauer chuckles and the interview continues.

He tells me that in addition to going through the program, he also served as a commander of the fifteenth class of Talpiot. He didn’t quite realize it when he was a cadet – but it hit him as a commander – that educating recruits straight out of high school has advantages. “At that age, you’re not responsible for a family; no kids, no jobs. You can study until one or two in the morning if need be, and it often is need be. The army gets a class of students who are free and able to learn.”

The other side of the coin is that, as youngsters, they have constant complaints. As a cadet, Tuttnauer complained about the same things he’d later have to address as a commander. “We complained that the lecturers go too fast, and it’s unfair because we are tested on more than our counterparts in the university. We cover 30 percent more. And the response was always that the lecturer will go as fast as his class allows him; if you understand everything, he will go on. We would complain pretty freely about things. We were very cynical.”

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.