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Building the Negev is BGU’s mission: president

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Robert Elman greets Rivka Carmi, president of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

MONTREAL — After Rivka Carmi finished her five-year term as dean of health sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2005, she decided she’d had enough of being an administrator. The pediatrician and geneticist was eager to get back to her research career.

But when Carmi was approached in 2006 to become president of BGU, she felt she could not refuse, she recently told local supporters of the university during a Montreal visit.

Carmi is the first female president of an Israeli university and is today also the chair of the Council of University Heads in Israel, a post previously held only by men.

“BGU is not just another institution of higher learning,” she told the Montreal chapter of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University. “It’s [essential] to Israel’s future. We are building a region, educationally, culturally, economically, in health care…. This is our mission.”

The Negev desert is still under development and is the home of many new immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia, North Africa and elsewhere, as well as a large Bedouin community.

“I felt I had to step up to the plate, and left my career as a physician to serve Israel,” said Carmi who was born in Israel the year the state was established.

BGU, located in the major city of Be’er Sheva, is “intimately involved in everything” in the area, she said.

Its students have a very high rate of community volunteerism, as do the faculty.

Southern Israel is no longer the safest part of the country. In her 6-1/2 years in the presidential office, the Negev has been affected by two wars (many refugees from the north who fled there during the Second Lebanon War) and numerous missile strikes.

Yet, BGU has not wavered from the vision that has guided it since its founding 42 years ago, Carmi said, and that is to make it possible for people to live well in the desert.

BGU is making its mark in science and technology, emphasizing research that can soon be put to practical use.

Once a leader in solar energy, today BGU is known for its expertise in other alternative fuels as well, including turning algae into a renewable energy source, she said.

Another area of excellence is robotics. Robots were initially developed there for agriculture. Today BGU scientists are creating vehicles that drive themselves, which may be useful, for example, in border patrol.

The event featuring Carmi, held at home of longtime BGU supporters Fran and Reuben Croll, introduced Robert Elman, president-elect of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University. Elman, a senior wealth manager at ScotiaMcLeod, succeeds Toby Morantz, a McGill University anthropology professor, who has been on the organization’s board for 25 years.

Elman paid tribute to two mentors, MP and human rights activist Irwin Cotler, from whom he learned much about advocacy, and Jewish community and interfaith leader Victor Goldbloom, who has been a role model for bridge-building, he said.

“I’m not really a fundraiser,” said Elman, “but I live by the adage, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”    He sees his role as making Montrealers more aware of BGU.

Elman is deeply impressed by the research conducted there in a wide range of areas, from water recovery to drug delivery using nanotechnology, to neurodegenerative diseases.

His goals as president include organizing public lectures, expanding exchanges with English and French universities, and reaching out to the Sephardi community.

Carmi congratulated Elman, saying, “We do not need a fundraiser, we need a leader.”

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