Tag Archives: Hebrew University

Jew of the Week: Renata Reisfeld

The Renowned Chemist Who Survived the Holocaust—and Entebbe

Renata Sobel (b. 1930) was born in Chelm, Poland. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her grandparents. When the Nazis occupied Poland, the family managed to escape and spent the war years in the harsh conditions of Siberia. Young Renata was unable to receive a formal education. After the war, she was engaged to Eliezer Reisfeld—on the condition that he allow her to pursue an education. As a child, Renata was inspired by a biography of Marie Curie and wished to become a scientist, too. The young family made aliyah to Israel in 1950 and settled in Jerusalem. There, Renata Reisfeld took up studies at the Hebrew University. Despite having no knowledge of Hebrew or English, she was the first to complete the entrance exam into the prestigious chemistry program that had only 23 spots. Reisfeld earned her Ph.D, then went to Oregon State University for post-doctoral work. One of Reisfeld’s main areas of research has been photovoltaic cells, and she played a big role in helping to bring down the cost of solar panels to make renewable solar energy possible on a large scale. She is also an expert on nanotechnology and solid state lasers. By 1975, Reisfeld had become the head of the chemistry department at Hebrew University. The following year, she was invited to speak at a conference in Paris. Her flight from Tel-Aviv made a stop in Athens, where Palestinian and German hijackers took control of the plane and diverted it to Entebbe, Uganda. Because she was one of the few hostages that spoke English, she represented the group of 102 passengers, and spoke with Idi Amin. The dictator took a liking to her, and when she asked him to take the hostages out on a tour of Uganda, Amin agreed! Eventually, the hostages were rescued in a daring raid by Israeli commandoes (which took the life of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of Benjamin Netanyahu). All in all, Reisfeld has published a whopping 532 scientific papers, together with four books, and her work has been cited over 30,000 times, making her among the world’s most prolific and renowned chemists. She has been awarded multiple honorary doctorates and scientific medals from around the world. Although officially retired, and now in her 90s, Reisfeld is still coming up with new inventions, the most recent being her fluorescent-transparent glass.

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Words of the Week

Sometimes things happen about which the leaders of the generation remain silent. This does not mean that nothing is to be done… On the contrary: when aware that you are able to do something about it, you are obligated to do so.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Raphael Mechoulam

“Godfather of THC”

Raphael Mechoulam

Raphael Mechoulam (b. 1930) was born in Bulgaria to a wealthy Sephardic-Jewish family. The family was forced to flee the country due to rampant anti-Semitism, ultimately surviving the Holocaust and settling in Israel in 1949. During his IDF service, Mechoulam worked as a chemical engineer and helped to develop insecticides. Falling in love with scientific research, he continued to study chemistry after his military service, earned his Master’s from the Hebrew University, then his PhD from the Weizmann Institute. After studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, Mechoulam returned to Israel to teach at both of his former universities. His primary field of research is cannabis. In fact, it was Mechoulam who first discovered, isolated, and synthesized THC, the primary active ingredient in cannabis. He would later discover and synthesize other important cannabinoids (a term he coined). Mechoulam was one of the pioneers of medicinal cannabis, and has said that medicinal cannabis could probably replace “ten to twenty percent of all pharmaceuticals”. More recently, he discovered endocannabinoids—molecules similar to THC that are naturally produced by the body, playing a key role in immunity and in regulating human emotions. All in all, Mechoulam published over 350 scientific papers. In 2016, he received a lifetime achievement award at Harvard’s School of Medicine. He was also the subject of an eye-opening documentary called The Scientist. Now a nonagenarian, Mechoulam continues to do research at his Jerusalem lab.

Words of the Week

Jewish time sees us as travellers on the road to a destination not yet reached; wayfarers on a journey begun by our ancestors, to be continued by our children.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

In Memory of a “Once-in-a-Millennium Scholar”

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (1937-2020) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had made aliyah from Eastern Europe a decade earlier. His father was completely secular, and a devoted socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Communist International. Nonetheless, his father wanted his son to know what Judaism was all about, and made sure to have him tutored by a rabbi. Meanwhile, young Steinsaltz studied math and science at Hebrew University. He then took up rabbinical studies at Chabad’s Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination), Steinsaltz tried to establish a neo-Hasidic community in the Negev, but was unsuccessful. He then became a school principal and, being just 24 years old, was the youngest principal in Israel’s history. In 1965, he embarked on a life-long journey to translate the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, along with composing a detailed commentary to explain its complexities. He finished the massive 42-volume set in 2010, after which it was translated into English, too, and shared freely online to make Talmudic learning accessible for everyone. Rabbi Steinsaltz also wrote profusely about topics that span the gamut of Judaism, including bestsellers on Kabbalah and Hasidism. Altogether, he penned over 60 books and some 200 other original texts of Jewish thought. (He even wrote an unpublished science fiction novel!) Meanwhile, Rabbi Steinsaltz helped found several yeshivas in Israel, as well as the Jewish University in Russia, with campuses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He had spent several years in the former Soviet Union to help re-establish Jewish life there, and in 1995 was given the title of Russia’s duchovny ravin, the “spiritual head” of Russian Jewry. In 2004, a large gathering of rabbis in Israel sought to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz accepted the nomination to head the court, being given the title nasi, “president”. Before he suffered a stroke in 2016, he was known to regularly give classes until two in the morning. He spent time at Yale University as a scholar-in-residence, and received honourary degrees from five universities. Among his many awards is the prestigious Israel Prize. His motto was “Let my people know!” and he has been compared to a modern-day Rashi and Maimonides. Sadly, Rabbi Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s most beloved public figures, passed away last Friday.

Words of the Week

The Bible is the record of when God talks to Man. The Talmud is Man talking to God.
– Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz