Can Safed become Israel’s Aspen?

The ‘old city’ of Safed – ‘Scientists need to exchange ideas in an informal place’.Some creative ideas start in the air. Literally. David Tannor, an Israeli professor of physical chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, was on …

The ‘old city’ of Safed – ‘Scientists need to exchange ideas in an informal place’.Some creative ideas start in the air. Literally. David Tannor, an Israeli professor of physical chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, was on a plane when he recognized his old karate buddy, Sam Solomon, whom he had not seen for 20 years.

During the long flight, the two Black Belt achievers had a chance to catch up. Solomon, a businessman, said that he was looking for ideas to re-energize Safed, the picturesque capital of the Galilee, (and Israel’s second poorest city). He had become personally interested when his daughter married a Braslav Hassidic Jew and moved there, and he became a board member of the Safed Foundation.

“Yes, I have an idea, why not organize scientific conferences in Safed?” said Tannor. “Safed is 10 degrees cooler than Tiberias.” His instant mental association was of Aspen and other scenic spots in Colorado, Telluride in particular, where he had participated in seminars as a post-doc at the University of Chicago and then organized as a young professor.

Four years later, with eight high level scientific workshops scheduled for 2007, the Safed Conference Project is definitely off the ground, even though it was delayed by a year. A successful seminar on ‘Continuing Professional Development Programs for Science Teachers’, went off as scheduled the first week in July, but the Second Lebanon War broke out, Safed was targeted by rockets, and five other seminars/workshops had to be postponed. A bumpy beginning.

This year, the ‘Safed Conferences’ will be run under the administrative auspices of The Israel Academy of Sciences. High level science seminars and workshops will include: Molecular Electronics, Real Time Quantum Dynamics, Solid State NMR, Quantum Thermodynamics, the Physics of Biological systems, Density Functional Theory, and Alternative Energies. Among the speakers and participants: Nobel Laureate, Pierre Gilles DeGennes, Institut Curie, and other top scientists in each field.

The first workshop, on ‘Innovative Pest Control Methods’ with guests from Spain and France, held in January was both productive and pleasurable, according to participants and organizers.

“Feedback was very positive,” said organizer Dr. Murad Ghanim from the Institute of Plant Protection in the Volcani Agriculture Research Center in Beit Dagon.

“…Wonderful hospitality and exceptional organization. All French participants were delighted to spend this beautiful week in Israel… to discover the exceptional richness of this country… It was really a great week…,” said participant Frederic Fleury, of Lyon, France.

Can science breath life into a sleepy ancient treasure? Filling in ISRAEL21c on the birth pains of the project, Tannor recalled his own positive personal experience with professional workshops held in a non-conventional place, outside a city.

“I remembered that the scientific community loved the camaraderie of informal conferences. It had an important effect on me as a young scientist. I liked the format of informal lectures in the morning. We could talk to top people in a field. Later in the day, we would walk for two to three hours to see a waterfall and have a chance to talk with other people in similar or different areas of research. You could learn about an entire new area of research,” said Tannor, 49.

And, science, it turns out, is bigger than politics. Disassociating from the boycott of Israeli institutions by the Union of British Universities, Philip Earis, the editor of the prestigious journal PCCP (Physical Chemical and Chemical Physics) wrote in an e-mail last week to the organizer of the upcoming seminar on ‘Real Time Quantum Dynamics’, scheduled for June 24 in Safed:

“The PCCP is committed to publishing the best science irrespective of its geographic origin. Geo-political issues play no part in the scientific process at PCCP. There are certainly no ‘boycotts’ related to scientists from any particular country… Israeli academics are involved with the journal at every level. We have been fortunate to publish some excellent research from Israeli scientists in recent months and years and look forward to receiving high quality submissions in the future.”

Ronnie Kosloff, a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who attended the University of Chicago with Tannor and is now his right hand man in the Safed Conference Project, agrees that science cannot be conducted in a vacuum, and said that Safed is the perfect site to break down any possible barriers.

“Scientists need to exchange ideas in an informal place. In a city, people get lost; they go to a museum. Here, you can sit on a bus, continue the talk on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, discuss an abstract problem, and gain insight.”

Kosloff, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli reserves, compares Safed to a medieval town in Italy with a castle.

A vestige of a once thriving artist community is still resident, attracted by the clear, clean mountain air and beautiful scenery. New immigrant artists and craftsmen from Russia, the US, and France have joined the residents. A hippy-ish Chassidic community is growing, but generally Safed wakes up only for a short period in the summer when the Klezmer music festival comes to town.

Safed was the center of Kabbala, Jewish mysticism in the 16th century where the Zohar, or ‘Secret Wisdom of mysticism’ was written. The oldest synagogue in Safed, the Ha’ari (the Lion), is named for the great master, Rabbi Izhak Luria. His student, Rabbi Joseph Caro, wrote the “Code of Jewish Law” in Safed 1555-1563. The city got a little positive buzz when Madonna expressed interest in building a Kabala Center in the area. The Messiah is supposed to begin his journey to Jerusalem from a narrow alley in Safed.

There’s a lot of chemistry in this story. And Kabbala. In Kabbala, the concept of “tikun olam” or fixing the world, is key.

“Science is complementary rather than contradictory to the ideas of kabbala,” says David Freedman, who studied in the Rhode Island School for Design before he moved to Safed, where he designs Kabbala art, and lectures to visitors.

Tannor related a tale of good chemistry between key people who focused on their goal. Solomon and Binny Shalev (the head of the Safed Foundation at the time) were instrumental in finding a donor to grant $10,000 for each conference, to help pay for accommodation and travel expenses of foreign scientists.

“It gives younger scientists an opportunity to hear about the most innovative ideas, to make contacts, and develop collaborations with Israel. You are really supporting the future of science,” said Kosloff.

Recruiting a team of scientists, mostly chemists – including Nimrod Moiseyev from the Technion, Eitan Domany from the Weizmann Institute, and Abraham Nitzan from Tel Aviv University – Kosloff and Tannor made their first reconnaissance visit to Safed in 2004 to find a place to hold the meetings.

“It was a beautiful spring day, we needed to find out what was there,” recalled Kosloff.

“One of our purposes was to have an impact on the old city of Safed,” said Tannor. “We had decided that we did not want a swank hotel as a venue. We checked out the possibility of using the dormitories of the local regional college, but they were not suitable. When we inquired there about a caterer, we were directed to the Mercazi Hotel. That is how we met Yossi Meibar, the manager and owner of the hotel.”

“Why not have your conferences here?” said Meibar?

The problem was that the hotel needed renovation. Undaunted, Tannor came up with an inspired, bold plan. He would offer the Mercazi owner an advance of $30,000 to renovate.

“Meibar was a third generation owner of the hotel; his grandfather had been a commander in Safed during the War of Independence. Ronnie deserves the credit for feeling that Yossi would be a partner in good faith,” said Tannor. “The result would be the conference organizers would get an improved facility in which to hold their meetings; Yossi would get a rejuvenated hotel; and Safed would get an improvement in its infrastructure.”

When the 2006 schedule had to be scuttled, Tannor just smiled and said matter-of-factly: “We will have to re-schedule them next year.” A tribute to his confidence, all 39 rooms in the Mercazi hotel were filled for the seminar on Molecular Electronics held at the end of April and beginning of May.

The initiators of the Safed Conference Project are already gearing up for 2008. Also on the agenda is a spin-off idea: to hold four public lectures a year for teachers. “We have many people who want to hold scientific seminars in Safed,” said Tannor. Of course, one of the main attractions is the subsidy. Since the original donor has put a ceiling on his grant, Tannor and his team have another challenge: to find an additional donor.

“The Project offers an excellent opportunity for an entrepreneurial donor to be part of an exciting, multi-yielding high level start-up initiative in Israel,” says Tannor. “It gives a boost to science, to the 16th century town, and offers visitors a chance to experience and see the beauty of the land of Israel and of the Holy Places.”

Tannor and Kosloff are just finishing the design of a logo for the Safed Scientific Conferences, which they say is a blend of chemistry and kabbala.

And yes, indeed, science can breathe life into a sleepy ancient treasure.