As 12th graders across the country complete their final matriculation examinations and take their last summer vacation before national service, higher yeshiva studies or military service – there is one yeshiva high school student who is not only graduating high school, but also happens to be the first yeshiva student ever to complete the "Future Scientists Center" Odyssey program for outstanding students.
It is no easy feat catching 18-year-old Nir Luria – a student at Ohr Torah Stone's Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School and resident of Elazar in Gush Etzion. He has a busy schedule, planned to the minute – a necessity in his case, after having spent the past four years not only studying in a yeshiva high school, but concurrently attending courses at Hebrew University twice a week with students much older than he, and completing a third of his B.Sc. degree. These days, Luria can be seen on campus, along with his fellow students who are completing the second year of the program, which provides gifted and outstanding students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the sciences and integrate into the research and academic communities.
"When one learns over a long period of time from eight in the morning until eight at night, it is a little difficult to make time for other things. One has to prioritize and decide where to invest the time and the effort, while taking into account that the learning will often come at the expense of leisure time," says Luria. "It almost always comes at the expense of socializing with friends, though I did make an effort to be a part of my yeshiva class throughout, and even succeeded. Is there a price one must pay? Always. When one has more time at one's disposal, one can spend more time with friends."
"That said, I'm glad I joined the program and I have no regrets," Luria declares. It helped me advance in a field of study that very much interests me professionally. The nice thing about the program is that it is not comprised of short and intense learning periods with nothing in between, but runs throughout the school year and during exam time as well. Over the past year I studied with students much older than me, and my daily schedule was very full, including submitting assignments and taking tests. What's fun about the program is that we are a very small group of students. It goes without saying that we have built solid relationships and have many common interests, which only adds to the good atmosphere and even forges deep friendships," he says.
"The Odyssey program is considered to be the President's office and Ministry of Education's flagship matriculation program, offering a very unique course of study," explains Chezi Zecharia, the principal of Neveh Shmuel. "In fact, the program basically takes the subjects of physics and mathematics, places them directly under government supervision and gives them national priority, rather than leaving them in the hands of the school."
"The rationale here is that we are talking of outstanding students who have undergone aggressive preliminary examinations and placement tests and are then handpicked for this unique program. The program members receive a great deal of homework and are given various learning tasks and challenges. For Nir it was even more complicated because, as a yeshiva student, he also had many additional hours of Torah studies. For this reason, we decided it would be best to build a customized learning schedule for him which would be realistic, enabling him to succeed in the program as well as in his Torah studies and matriculation exams in the yeshiva."
Luria has managed to accomplish this tricky feat. "We started off with 23 people, and ended with ten only. It is an experience not everybody is fortunate enough to have. Recently I was told that I am the first yeshiva high school student to have completed the program," he says with modest pride, not forgetting to give credit to all those who supported him throughout: "I received tremendous support from the yeshiva, the teachers and the entire staff, as well as from my parents. Because of this support I was able to fit in all the academic studies and even succeed, thank God."
As the first yeshiva student to complete the program, do you think science and halakha (Jewish law) go hand in hand?
"I see science and halakha as two approaches that are not necessarily conflicting; they are simply two points of view. The first is scientific and gives an accurate description of processes as they are and explains them. The second, represented by the Torah, attempts to give an ideological or theoretical perspective: the reason that the process takes place, and for what purpose. When people say that the two approaches pose contradictions that cannot be resolved, it is probably not the case, because we live in two separate systems of rules and our world contains endless built-in paradoxes and contradictions with which we have to learn to live. Maybe if I go into research, I will study the relationship between the two and how contradictions may be resolved."
You have already completed much of the degree, and the matriculation examinations are behind you. What's the next step?
"I am taking life's regular course, just like everybody else. Next year I will be studying in a higher yeshiva, followed by military service and then university studies. In addition to the program I completed, there is a follow-up framework which includes lectures for graduates and academic support for those who desire. The objective is to create a platform which will enable us to advance and receive the support we need to develop society and the sciences in future. Will it happen? It is still too early to tell, but I hope it does," Luria says.
"We are very proud of Nir for his achievements and the great progress he has made, and happy to have given him all the support he needed to participate in the program," concludes Neveh Shmuel principal Chezi Zecharia. "Nir has shown us that it is possible to combine high school studies with Torah studies while taking part in a demanding program for outstanding students; in doing so, he paved the road for three additional Neveh Shmuel students who are currently partaking in the program's initial stages. We hope that they all serve as role models for the entire sector by demonstrating that it is possible to excel and become leaders in all of these areas."
Rabbi Dr. Katriel Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone added: "All of Ohr Torah Stone's educational institutions have adopted the flexibility necessary for enabling students to broaden their horizons and partake in various national projects, especially in areas that focus on the interface between Torah and science. Notwithstanding the above, we consider it important that these students continue to invest in Torah studies to ensure that they bring that facet into their academic studies, and that they not miss out on the social opportunities offered by the high school experience."