By Diana Brement, Jewish Sound Columnist
Naomi Weiss Newman doesn’t like to play favorites, but the consummate volunteer for so many Jewish organizations in the Seattle area, admits to a soft spot for Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.
Fifteen years ago, she was the driving force behind the formation of Technion’s Northwest chapter. Now they, in turn, have granted her an honorary fellowship. She traveled to Israel in June with husband Jon and twin girls to be one of 10 people from around the world who received fellowships “for contributions to Technion and for the betterment of the organization,” she explains. Among the honorees was Alan Dershowitz.
Technion’s and Israel’s histories are inextricably linked, says Naomi, who has been president of the Northwest chapter for five years. Founded in Haifa in 1912, the school, its students and graduates were instrumental in building the infrastructure of the future Jewish state. The fellowship brings Naomi “full circle, because my father served in the Haganah..,” she says. “He was there when it became a state.” Her mother, a concentration camp survivor, met her dad just after the war.
With her interest generated by her late mother’s multiple sclerosis, Naomi sought to support both Israel and neurology research relating to the disease. Technion is “responsible for patents and breakthrough treatments,” she says, particularly “melding technology and neuro research together.” Naomi and Jon even toured the school on their honeymoon.
The June 15 ceremony “was amazing,” Naomi says, “more than I even expected.” Each fellow stood as his or her accomplishments were recited. Some extra excitement was added because “we needed to be on a plane on the 16th so I could be back on the 17th for my father’s 100th birthday,” she says.
Technion exemplifies Israel, historic and modern, says Naomi, who is also a graduate of their leadership development program (a “boiled down MBA,” she says). “I could not be prouder,” she continues, of its medical and technological advancements, including in robotics. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system was developed at the school, “sad, but true,” notes Naomi. “Sad that we need it, but outstanding that…it has saved so many lives.”
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Debra Siroka had freshly arrived in the area when I spoke to her in early August — moving to Issaquah from the Midwest to become the new director of lifelong learning at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue. With her two teenage children at camp, she and her husband had already made time to go hiking a couple of times. She hopes to have time soon to explore Seattle’s arts offerings, too.
Debra grew up in suburban Minneapolis, belonged to a large synagogue, and attended a high school with a significant Jewish population.
“I was always involved in the Jewish community,” she notes. And “always liked school, learning about education. My love of Judaism and my love of education fit in this field.” Thus, it “sort of made sense” to become a Jewish educator.
The trajectory wasn’t completely straight. She entered college as a musical theater major, transferred a few times for different reasons, and then went to Israel for a year. Back in the U.S., she arrived at the University of Cincinnati where, she says, “I literally threw down my transcript in front of the registrar and said, ‘Find me the quickest way out.’”
The registrar’s response: Judaic studies. After completing that degree, Debra also earned a M.Ed. at the University of Cincinnati.
Debra served as director of Jewish learning at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J. for 10 years and then director of congregational learning at Temple Beth-El in South Bend, Ind. She is also the educational consultant for the American Jewish Archives, which maintains the largest collection of primary documents on American Jewish history (www.americanjewisharchives.org). She takes source materials from the archives and develops curriculum outlines for teachers.
“It’s a fabulous website,” she says, and “I’m kind of a history nerd.”
She sees “nothing but opportunity” at B’nai Torah, which has experienced numerous staff changes recently, calling it “the central location for all things educational in the suburban Bellevue area.”
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Short takes: Lauren Simonds, former executive director of the local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women, reports she is now the executive director of the National Association on Mental Illness for Washington State (NAMI-WA) which improves the quality of life for all those affected by mental illness through advocacy, education and support. NAMI supports 22 affiliates in the state. She also tells us that she and former state representative Laura Ruderman have joined the board of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) — Lauren with AAUW Redmond/Kirkland, and Lauren on the state board as the public policy co-chair.