| Family First Feature |

World of Light

She was once a Catholic schoolgirl in France; now Ora Zyto’s a frum bio-engineer in Boston

When someone proposed that we write an article about Ora Zyto, I took a peek at her LinkedIn profile. She’s pictured there in a light brown, shoulder-length wig and wire-rim glasses, grinning at the camera.

Her profile states that she speaks four languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian) and earned a PhD in biological engineering from MIT, writing a thesis on “Computational modeling of protein-biomolecule interactions with application to mechanotransduction and antibody maturation.”

Wow. Can you say that five times fast? I like to think I’m as educated as the next person, but I couldn’t make head or tail of the title, let alone the contents, nor do I speak four languages. I prepared myself to be intimidated.

Ora isn’t just unusual for her geek power. She’s not American, but a native of France. She didn’t grow up Jewish; that decision came while she was a young adult.

But I needn’t have worried about intimidation. The Zytos’ house is located on a narrow, hilly street in Brighton, a frum neighborhood bordering Boston, Massachusetts. Ora comes to the door in a snood, T-shirt, and Crocs, with a wide smile and a pudgy five-month-old on her hip.

“Come in, come in!” she says, in a ringing voice with only a trace of accent.

Like Ora’s attire, her home is casual. There’s a large airy kitchen with a few dishes lingering in the sink, and shelves packed with children’s games and books. The Zytos’ oldest child is 16 and their youngest was born just after Purim; they have four more in between.

We sit at the dining room table and settle in for coffee and conversation. Now I get a better look at Ora. Fair and tall, with wide green eyes behind the glasses, she could pass for a wholesome farm girl — and indeed, those are her maternal roots.

 

Humble Beginnings

Ora’s grandfather was a farmer from Bretagne, on the western coast of France. He and her grandmother, who came from Belgium, met as postwar pen pals.

“As liberated POWS came home after the war, girls would swing by the train station stops to deliver care packages with their names and addresses tucked inside — they were hoping to find husbands,” Ora says. “My grandmother’s sister received too many letters as a result of her packages, so she passed one of the names to her, and they began corresponding.”

In her grandparents’ provincial circles, eyebrows were raised when her grandfather married a Belgian girl rather than a local. But the couple didn’t stay local for long; her grandfather, who didn’t have a degree and didn’t own land, could only find work as a hired hand on farms.

An aunt suggested he rejoin the military to work as a policeman keeping the peace in Germany, which many former Allied troops were doing. Ora’s grandfather heeded the advice, and her mother was born there in 1951 in the city of Koblenz.

“Both my parents are really smart,” Ora avows, but it was her mother who defied all expectations: “My mother was poised to stay in blue-collar, low-paying jobs like all her relatives and friends. However, her parents valued education, and with the help of a devoted high school math teacher, my mother got into college — she was the first in her family.

“She was unusual for her time, since she majored in mechanical engineering in the mid-1970s. She went on to earn a degree equivalent to an MBA.” The experience underscored the value of education, and both Ora’s parents put great importance on doing well in school.

As for her paternal roots, Ora’s father’s family hails from the Savoie region of France, in the Alps near Switzerland. “My father comes from a somewhat upper-class family,” Ora says. “My grandfather was a civil engineer. He passed away when my father was five, and my elegant grandmother had to work to support her two children until she remarried.”

Ora’s parents met at university, at a bridge club on campus. “Even though my mother didn’t like to play cards, she went because a friend told her that lots of nice guys hung out there.” After their marriage, the couple settled in an area near Versailles, close to Paris.

Ora pauses to settle baby Hadassah into her stroller for a nap, with effusive kisses and practiced competence. Observing her, I marvel at her matter-of-fact, take-charge approach to childcare in particular and life in general. She seems to take her impressive credentials in stride; she’s simply focused on what needs to get done next. Rocking the stroller back and forth, she picks up the dropped stitch of the conversation.

Growing up, Ora and her sister were raised as Catholics, more culturally than religiously. When she was ten, her parents gave her the choice to stop or continue her religious education. “I stopped,” Ora says. “I knew it wasn’t emes.”

Though her Catholic education was over, she was soon immersed in the study of Russian.

“In France, students begin learning a foreign language in sixth grade, and a second one in eighth grade,” Ora explains. “Most kids learn English and Spanish, or English and German. But if your local schools don’t offer the language you want, you can enroll in a different district. The school that happened to offer Russian was excellent, so I went there instead of my local school, which didn’t have a stellar reputation.”

As a second language, Ora chose English and studied it all through college, which explains her excellent English (her vocabulary outshines that of many native speakers I know). By the time she got to college, she’d learned as much Russian as she needed, so she started learning Spanish for her language requirement.

Middle school wasn’t an easy time for a kid who wasn’t from the district and was academically ahead of the pack. “Things were rough for me in the friends department,” she admits. “I had one very good friend, but I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I was mildly bullied in middle school, nothing too serious, but definitely not the easiest way to grow up.”

Fortunately, high school provided some relief. Ora ended up in one of the best public high schools in France, which was now within her district. There was a tremendous pressure to succeed, she says, “but lots of students were nerdy and wanted to do well in school. Being at the top of the class was easier socially there, and I was able to make friends.”

A Jewish Spark

At age 12, Ora met her first Jewish role model: her harp teacher. The woman was divorced, but soon remarried, became a baalas teshuvah, and began covering her hair. Ora remembers asking her about the changes in her life.

Ora’s first real taste of Judaism, however, was in high school, through dating a young man who was from a traditional Sephardic family.

“They weren’t religious, but they ate kosher, and always had a Friday night meal,” Ora relates. “We dated for a long time, and it was through him that I discovered Judaism — concepts like how Moshe received the Torah at Sinai. To me, it just made sense.

“I found it very beautiful that in Judaism, you serve Hashem with your whole life, instead of confining it to attending Mass on Sundays. Religion isn’t divorced from the rest of your life. It’s part of life, and that more than anything else is what impressed me about Judaism.”

Although she and her friend dated for several years, the relationship fizzled. Yet her glimpse into Jewish family life sparked her interest, and she began borrowing book after book from him about Judaism, much to her parents’ dismay.

“I used to hide books under my pillow,” Ora relates. “My father once found one, and he was very upset. My parents thought that if I wanted to be more spiritual, I should attach myself more firmly to Catholicism.

“They thought at first it was just a teenage phase,” she says, admitting that some of the clashes were her own fault. “I kept changing the rules on them! First I’d tell them I wouldn’t eat their meat any more. Then I’d tell them I couldn’t eat anything in their house. As I stabilized in my own level, they calmed down. They realized, ‘Okay, she’s crazy, but now she won’t go any crazier than this.’

“I probably didn’t show the best kibbud av v’eim during those years. I’m stubborn and strong willed, and my mother is too. But they saw this was not going away, and today we have a beautiful relationship.”

A few years after Ora broke off with her Sephardic friend and had begun the conversion process, she crossed paths with her old beau again. At that point he told her, “I never would’ve married you, because you weren’t Jewish. But I also knew that if you ever converted, you’d become way too religious for me!”

In her sensible, well-grounded way, Ora proceeded through the conversion process slowly and steadily. She began in earnest at age 19, when she went to college and became geographically and financially independent from her family (the college paid a stipend). She initiated the process with the Beth Din of Paris, and it took her several years.

She knew they would turn her away three times, and wasn’t fazed when she was asked to read about 25 books and attend a weekly class for almost two years. Her college was a small distance away from Paris, but she’d willingly drive to the local train station, take a train into Paris, and from there take the metro to her conversion classes.

“I was young, idealistic, and energetic,” she says.

What’s perhaps even more impressive is Ora’s perseverance in the absence of a community or role models. “I was doing Shabbos alone for years,” she says. “Even when I came to Boston, I would go to Chabad or other students’ places for Shabbos, but I didn’t really become part of a community until I got married.

“It’s so much better to enter Judaism as part of a family or community. You can read about it in books, but when you see it practiced in daily life, you truly absorb it. Today I wonder how I did everything on my own at the beginning!”

Higher — and Higher — Education

Gifted in math and science, Ora entered a preparatory program after high school for math and physics — “it’s almost like getting a degree in math, just without studying statistics,” she says. The program finished with a grueling, three-week-long series of exams, including written tests that lasted for four hours.

Those who weren’t weeded out by the exams went through the next phase of hazing: one-on-one oral exams, which the professors used to rank all the participants. “Based on the rankings, they determined which college you could continue in,” Ora explains.

Having excelled in her exams, Ora gained admission to the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, comparable to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Since the college is funded by the Department of Defense, students serve as officers in the army or police force, rather like American ROTC programs. Her assignment was to serve as a first lieutenant at a police station near Paris. (Her husband, whom she knew at the time only superficially from school, served with the military police.)

At 19 years old, she learned to shoot a gun and handcuff suspects. Then she was given a uniform and put to work at the station in the Neuilly-sur-Seine suburb of Paris.

“I learned a lot about operating in a work environment, handling responsibilities, dealing with superiors,” says Ora. “At the beginning I would go on patrols with policemen; sometimes I did undercover work.”

Undercover work? That sounds very James Bond-ish! “It was fun,” Ora admits. “People don’t expect undercover cops to be women. I was once involved in an arrest where a teenager had stolen a cell phone. He said to me, ‘You’re a cop? But you were standing there the whole time!’ ”

Ora’s superiors eventually decided undercover work was too dangerous for someone without the appropriate, yearlong training, and limited her mostly to desk work, creating projects to help the station allocate resources more effectively.

Neuilly is a wealthy neighborhood, with its share of robberies, so she devoted herself to working on basic programming, creating a system for police officers to enter data about thefts: where it happened, what was stolen, time of day or night, and so forth. The information was communicated to police patrols so that they knew which areas required greater vigilance.

Once a robbery was reported at the home (or maybe the shul, Ora can’t remember which) of then-Chief Rabbi of France Rabbi Yosef Sitruk ztz”l. Although she hadn’t finished her conversion, her fellow police officers knew she identified as Jewish, and asked if she’d like to come along to meet the Chief Rabbi, and they had a brief interaction.

During those years, the eloquent and often-humorous Rav Sitruk gave a very popular weekly shiur at the synagogue on the Rue de la Victoire that attracted and inspired many young people, and Ora was a regular attendee.

She spent three years at the Ecole Polytechnique, earning the equivalent of an MS degree. She had especially enjoyed studying biology, and considered pursuing that route, but ultimately decided against it. “The job opportunities were in areas like food science,” she says. “I realized that I’d have more choices if I went into engineering.”

Biomedical engineering hence became the career path of choice, especially after she spoke to a biomedical engineer from the US who made it sound fascinating. She applied to a doctoral program at MIT and moved to Boston in 2002, where she completed her conversion with the Beis Din of Boston.

Building New Roots

Ora’s husband Sacha (pronounced Sasha) also came to MIT from the Ecole Polytechnique, studying computer science and robotics. He had become shomer Shabbat and was interested in continuing to grow. In Sacha’s case, while still in France, he’d become friends with Jeremy, a guy who was frum but never pressured him to follow in his footsteps… until Rav Yehochoua Gronstein came to speak on campus.

“It’s just one hour. Just come listen!” Jeremy said.

Jeremy had never pushed him before, so Sacha tagged along to hear Rav Gronstein, a Swiss-born rabbi who was himself a talmid of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. “That one hour changed his life,” Ora says. “He left the shiur saying, ‘I need to learn with that man!’ And he did, on a regular basis, and eventually became shomer mitzvos.”

Ora and Sacha met each other again at MIT and, after Ora’s conversion was completed, Sacha proposed that they date. “It just made sense,” Ora says. “We came from the same cultural background, shared the same values and interests.”

Since Boston is such a small community, they hoped to keep the relationship under the radar, but that very smallness made it impossible. “At the time, Boston had two kosher Chinese restaurants. We opted for the less-popular one, thinking it would be more private. But the minute we walked in, we bumped into two other couples who were dating!”

They married in France, with an outdoor chuppah and the meal conducted like an informal garden party. To avoid the issue of mixed dancing, the band at the reception played only ambiance music in a klezmer style; the only dancing was the impromptu burst of celebration after the chuppah. “Two-thirds of the wedding guests weren’t Jewish, and the other third were frum Jews. It was an interesting mix,” Ora says. Rav Gronstein was very helpful, even organizing one of the sheva brachos in his yeshivah, complete with the one-man band they hadn’t had at the wedding.

By the time Ora finished her PhD in 2008, she and Sacha had three children and the oldest was four (she defended her dissertation while eight and a half months pregnant with her third).

At her first job, organizing clinical research at Normatec, she worked 30 hours a week, with her children attending school and day care. From there she moved on to Mathworks as an engineer, initially providing advanced tech support to customers and later as a quality engineer testing and improving software used by biotech and pharma companies.

“That was full-time, and it was very hard,” she avows. “For almost three years, my husband and I were working full-time. We were barely managing with the kids. They were in school for long hours and we had to rely on regular babysitters. Things became a little easier when my husband took a job in 2014 with Suitable Technologies in California.”

Four years ago, Ora moved on to her latest job, at Applied Biomath. One of the founders was in her lab when she was working on her doctorate: “There’s a very small circle of people who do my combination of math, biology, and computer science,” she says. She’d commute to work three days a week and work from home the other day.

Ora begins to describe her job responsibilities there, but it sounds like Greek to me, so she elaborates. Companies doing research into, say, a new medication, have to make precise calculations as to whether to continue research into a particular medicine, given the various parameters.

For example, does the drug have too many negative side effects? What factors will have the biggest impact on a drug’s safety? Is it worth doing if the competition is already researching the same medication and is maybe farther along or doing a better job? What design criteria should be used if a medication isn’t optimal? Can the molecule be tweaked to have the properties the company wants?

Ora’s job was to work with the software that drove the models — models that are important because millions of dollars and the lives of patients may depend on the outcomes. “We work on optimizing the models, tweaking them,” Ora says. “They’re never perfect, since we often have to make assumptions when we set them up.”

She adds that Judaism gives her a lens through which to see a higher purpose to her profession: “Through science, we understand Hashem’s world and the human body better, and try to advance healing,” she says. “As a frum woman in a secular workplace, I’m very conscious of making a kiddush Hashem with my colleagues.”

When baby Hadassah was born, Ora took 12 weeks of maternity leave, fully intending to return to the work she so enjoyed. But then she needed more time to organize her older kids for camp. She thought she’d go back at the end of June, then finally realized she needed more flexibility — she now had four older kids, a toddler and a newborn.

After asking daas Torah, she opted to stop working for the time being. “I work harder when I’m at home, just cooking and taking care of everyone!” she asserts.

Bound to Boston

The Zytos have been happy in Boston, a city comfortable for Europeans due to its historic ambiance, quaint well-groomed streets, and minimal commercialism. Even the frum community is full of PhDs and professionals, who mix seamlessly with the kollel crowd and community of Bostoner chassidim.

“It’s a transient community,” Ora says. “Many people come to get a degree or do a fellowship for a few years, and move on. But those who stay are very accepting and welcoming, and since most of us don’t have family here, we become each other’s families.”

She believes living out of town is a good choice for a couple comprised of a convert and a baal teshuvah, as the social expectations are less rigid. “We’re still working on learning the nuances of the frum community!” Ora admits with a laugh. “Every week we read the Kichels in Mishpacha, and it gives us an education in the social norms of frum society. I remember my husband was once puzzled by a cartoon; he said, ‘What’s the freezer?’ We’re not up to that part yet.”

They’re relieved not to be living in France, where anti-Semitism is increasing. But they do visit. Ora’s parents maintain a separate set of dishes and even a separate stove to accommodate her. Since Ora’s sister is married with three children, and is quite traditional, her parents are able to appreciate that certain key values — family, honesty, a connection to G-d — are shared in both families.

Sacha’s mother, whose family left Egypt around the time of the 1956 Suez crisis, has also become religious, and they visit her in Paris whenever they can.

Ora’s parents fly to Boston regularly (though not during major holidays, as it’s just too complicated), bearing kosher French cheeses and other goodies. They’ve gotten used to the rhythms of the Zyto household and pitch in where they can. Adventurous sorts, they’ll take the car and explore the area, and Ora’s children and her parents get along fabulously.

Of course, there are still areas they find difficult to understand. Why don’t the Zytos let a six-year-old girl wear pants and sleeveless tops? Why do the boys spend so many hours in yeshivah — isn’t that bordering on abuse?

“Covering my hair was a big issue,” Ora says. “When I bought a Wonder Wig, my mother was thrilled because it looked so natural.”

Ora’s nine-year-old daughter now bursts into the kitchen after day camp, smiling broadly, and the two-year-old has woken up and toddles in. Would Ora ever have dreamed, as a young girl growing up in France, that one day she’d be a Jewish PhD scientist with six children and a high-tech career?

Surely not. But Ora’s simply taking things in stride. Conversion, marriage, and motherhood, a PhD from MIT — none of it seems to have fazed her. She handles it all with aplomb, and Catholic France’s loss is Jewish Boston’s gain.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 715)

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