Lin Edri, 16, doesn’t have a typical high school curriculum. While math, English and biology fill obligatory slots on her class schedule, she spends the bulk of her time learning how to build drones.
Edri, a sophomore, is one of 300 students attending Israel Aerospace Industries high school (IAI), an industrial-vocational high school in Tel Aviv funded by Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network (ISTSN), the largest independent network of science and technology schools in Israel.
The school, which is on the campus of the government-run Israel Aerospace Industries, sends students into the Israeli Air Force and potentially into top jobs in the country’s aviation industry. Many students pursue a university engineering degree directly after high school before enrolling in the army; the IDF covers 80 percent of their educational costs.
IAI is one of the most competitive high schools in the country, according to officials there; of the more than 200 applicants each year, 80 new students are accepted. Of the school’s 300 students, only eight are women.
Though IAI has been around for 50 years, the first female students began enrolling only two years ago. According to the school’s principal, Yehuda Chorev, the transition was spurred by shifting interests and an increased number of women in the Israeli army.
“Students from our school go on to pursue careers in mechanics, aviation, professional army service and the aerospace industry. Not until recently have women started showing an interest in these fields,” he said.
Edri, who is from Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city south of Tel Aviv, said that she’s the only one among her friends pursing this field.
“My friends say I inspire them,” she said, stepping out of her electrical engineering class for the interview. (I visited there last month as part of a trip sponsored by the American Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools.) The classroom felt more like a downtown New York loft of a high-tech start-up than a high school. “They all tell me I’m very brave to come here alone.” Her English, though halting at times, was deliberate and clear.
A second-generation Israeli, Edri is passionate about fortifying Israel’s system of defense and looks forward to her army service.
“If Israel can’t defend itself, we have nothing. I chose this path because women should take part in defending Israel,” she said. “I know soon my friends will join me.”
Lihi Danino, 16, another one of the eight female students at IAI, is Edri’s cousin. The two sit next to each other in most classes, study together and help each other with challenging homework assignments.
“My father studied here — that’s what inspires me,” Danino said. “My father always told me I could achieve my goals. He said there are no limits.”
The notion of “no limits” is the pulse that brings the school and its ambitious student body alive. A sense of purpose pervades the halls as students shuttle from class to class, deconstructing the science and mechanics behind Israel’s most prized aircrafts, missiles and drones.
Last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza added a degree of urgency to the students’ work. The Iron Dome, which deflected nearly all of the incoming rockets from Gaza, was partially designed at the Israel Aerospace Industries; its detection radar, which detects and tracks rockets, is run by the industry. A considerable number of the faculty members at the aerospace industry are graduates of the ISTSN.
“This past war showed the world the importance of a strong Israeli defense,” said Daniel Drellitch, 14, a ninth-grader at IAI. Originally from Cedarhurst, L.I., Drellitch made aliyah with his family in 2007. As we spoke, he was taking apart the turbo fan engine of an F100 jet fighter aircraft.
“The war machines that we are learning how to build and operate now were flying above our heads,” he said. “It added a sense of importance to our work. Everything became real.”
As part of the curriculum, students at IAI must complete hands-on internships with senior members of the aeronautics industry. Coby Nefsky, 17, a senior, interns at the private jet division of the industry. He is currently working on a Gulfstream G280, a twin-engine business jet.
“I’m grateful to be here,” said Nefsky, a mechanics major who made aliyah with his family in 2008 from Toronto. “It doesn’t even feel like school. I was working on building an F16 when my boss left for the afternoon.”
An F16 Fighting Falcon is a single-engine fighter aircraft; it can cost up to $20 million. “‘Are you really sure you want to trust a kid to make an F16?’ is what I thought to myself,” he joked.
Over the summer, Nefsky was very aware of Israel’s negative image in the media. However, he said that the international criticism aimed at Israel didn’t concern him.
“You can’t be concerned when you’re doing things to protect your own safety,” said Nefsky. “My family lives here. I’m protecting them. Self-defense is not something to conceal.”