For the week ending 19 March 2016 / 9 Adar II 5776

John Gibson

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Library Library Library

Age: 29

Chicago, Illinois
University of Northern Illinois, BS in Biochemistry and Applied Mathematics
University of Chicago, MA in Applied Mathematics

Mechina Program

During WWII, the Nazis, yemach shemam, sent their encrypted military messages through a German invention called “The Enigma Machine”. It was a diabolically clever device that changed the encryption and the code on a daily basis. It had so many permutations that cracking its code could be done only through a computer. But computers hadn’t been invented yet. Alan Turing, a Cambridge-educated mathematician, invented a cardreading computational machine that eventually broke the Enigma Code. With their new major advantage over the Nazis, the war was shortened.

Many of our students have interesting backgrounds, but few, if any, have been cryptographers. John Gibson was. Born in New Jersey, the family moved to Illinois when he was a boy. His father, Dr. J. Murray Gibson, who had been a scientist at Bell Labs in New Jersey, took a professorship in Physics at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. In addition, he was appointed the Director of the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory, a global leader in many scientific areas.

John had a secular Jewish upbringing, and religion was not really very much a part of his life. Academics were important in the family. Not only was his father an academic, his mother had been an assistant professor at Bernard Baruch College at the City University of New York. John went to University of Northern Illinois where he earned a BS degree in Biochemistry and Applied Mathematics. After college he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream, which would also pay off his large student loan debt, and joined the US Army. After taking a battery of tests, the Army saw that he had a talent for learning languages, and after basic training he was sent to language school in Monterrey, California to become a cryptographic linguist. While they don’t have to invent computers, like Alan Turing did, they do intercept enemy communications and try to decipher them. He was taught Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan, and was tasked with deciphering Taliban communications. After a nine-month tour of duty in Afghanistan he was sent to various locations in the Middle East and the US, where he continued his highly classified work. After three and a half years in the Army he was given an honorable discharge and entered the University of Chicago, where he received a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics.

John worked for a few years as a silicon chip designer and a computer coder. He then decided to switch fields. After moving to Chicago, his mother had joined Merrill Lynch, eventually becoming First Vice President, Wealth Management Advisor and Senior Portfolio Manager. She asked John if he would like to come into the business. Using his skills as a mathematician, he built mathematical models for trading securities and also began to manage portfolios, which he is doing today.

Two of the senior managers in his trading unit are Kirill Vorobeychik and Or Gera. They are both Orthodox Jews. John was impressed with their ethical behavior. The world of high finance is not known for its high level of ethical behavior, but these men were outstanding in their honesty and integrity. John felt honored to learn from them.

When Kirill invited John to participate in the Shabbat Project that JET (Jewish Educational Team – a kiruv group) was organizing in Chicago, he accepted. The two main rabbis at JET are Zev Kahn and Shalom Garfinkel, both Ohr Somayach and Ohr LaGolah graduates. In addition to learning with Kirill and Or, John also started learning with the JET rabbis, and when JET organized a learning trip to Israel in the summer of 2015 John signed up. The venue for the learning was Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. John was smitten. He recently managed to schedule an extended vacation and he’s spending it here in the Mechina Program.

When asked about his experience here John says, “At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Ohr Somayach is unique, amazing, and intensely familiar — all at one time. You truly feel like you belong here while learning continuously, listening and participating in fascinating shirum all throughout the day, alongside people your age and your skill level. There are many types of people here, but the common factor uniting all of us is the desire to learn. And here learning is no function of solitude: there is a wonderful (almost subconscious) push from your colleagues to together embrace as much Torah as we can — even while helping each other out in stumbles along the way. This is a beautiful place, and it is home in many ways.”

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