A new initiative, backed by The Jewish Agency -- which is focused in part on connecting Jews from around the world to Israel and one another -- Israel Tech Challenge was created to help young Jewish adults with extraordinary tech talent, and a strong feeling of connection to Israel, become part of the ‘Start-Up Nation’ story. The program aims to introduce young technology leaders to Israel through short-term visits, prestigious internships, and mentorships with leading figures in the Israeli tech community.
As Adler rode a bus along Israel’s coastal highway, after a visit to Haifa and IBM’s research and development center, he spoke about why he believes the Israeli high-tech community is unique.
“There is this aspect of peoplehood,” he said. “No matter who somebody is, they are part of the family. Israel seems to have the best of every place I’ve ever visited with a strong entrepreneurial community. There is a friendly, open culture as well as a tolerance and understanding of risk.”
One of 25 people, from a pool of some 450 applicants, selected from all over the world for the program's inaugural cohort, Adler also said that he believes Israel’s technological success is a 21st-century embodiment of the Jewish principle of bringing light to the world.
The pilot program consists of a partnership with Taglit Birthright Israel that offers the 12-day trips. During the trip, called Taglit Tech Challenge, participants visit Israeli high-tech companies of all sizes, where they meet with leading entrepreneurs and engineers. Participants also put their talents to use in a 36-hour Hackathon, where small teams work with Israeli high-tech leaders to create technological solutions to existing social challenges.
“[For Israel] to say ‘we’re going to be a leader, to push the envelope and find new frontiers in these challenging fields’ is something that all Jews should be proud of,” Adler said. “We’re meeting with high-level government and military officials and learning about diplomatic advances and technological exchanges with countries that wouldn’t interact with Israel before. I think that’s amazing.”
“There are very high-level challenges in Israel that we are solving [through technology],” said Nofar Amikam, head of strategy and business development for Israel Tech Challenge, “Input from high-level specialists from all over the world is most welcome here.”
Through the Israel Tech Challenge, Amikam believes that gifted young engineers from around the Jewish world can become part of the solution while deepening their own connections to the Jewish state. In addition to the 12-day trip, Israel Tech Challenge offers a two-month internship program in conjunction with The Jewish Agency’s Onward Israel initiative and a 10-month track through Masa: Israel Journey -- a joint initiative between The Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel.
“The best case scenario,” Amikam said is that participants on the 12-day trip “fall in love with [Israel’s high-tech community] then go to intern for a summer with one of the companies they visited and then come back to Israel for 10 months with Masa Israel Journey.”
“We tried to create a very heterogeneous group,” Amikam said. “We have people who are more in the math field and some who are in robotics or computer assisted design (CAD). We also chose people who have been to Israel and have a connection. We help them network so they can meet people, and through the Hackathon they can contribute and really feel like they are influencing Israel.”
Naomi Saphra, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who is now pursuing a doctorate in machine-based translation at Johns Hopkins, spoke of a difference in the Israeli approach to problem solving. Her observation related to Adler’s. She said that the circumstances in which Israelis live require creativity in solving high-stakes problems in very compressed timeframes. This has been the case throughout Israel’s history.
“Because of the engineers’ military backgrounds and Israel’s geography, the start-ups in Israel are solving problems that are bigger than ‘What should a 22-year-old guy purchase on the Internet?’” Saphra said. “We visited a company called Windward, which is developing a technology to prevent smuggling of weapons through seaports. That is not something I’d expect to see come out of Silicon Valley.”
She added: “One thing I do when I have such a short timeframe to solve an urgent problem is that I would take a really big gamble. Instead of building up to a principled solution by solving it in the simplest way and adding something on, I would just try whatever it is that -- from a little bit of thinking -- seems like it would work really nicely.”
In addition to touring and networking, the 25 Tech Challenge participants worked on projects in smaller teams of three, four and five during the two-day Hackathon hosted at PayPal Israel. Serving as team mentors, a number of Israeli entrepreneurs helped the groups refine their ideas and meld the various skillsets.
The final projects included the development a device with electronic sensors to help blind people better navigate their physical surroundings; a one-stop app that allows Internet uses to better manage their online privacy (revealed.com, which ultimately won the competition); a facial recognition program that allows a group of tiny images to form a larger image; an app that allows users to search for web content based on reading comprehension level; an interactive disaster-response map; and a three-dimensional fair-reporting tool that allows for multiple cameras to record the same news story.
Each team spent 36 hours coding, designing, prototyping and building new technologies that might eventually become household names. In the process they would build lasting bonds with their colleagues and Israeli mentors and deepen their already strong connections to Israel.
Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency, quipped at the Hackathon's closing ceremony -- held on New Year's Eve in the company of dozens of hi-tech industry leaders -- that he was “fairly intimidated” by how much these young people accomplished in less than two days. Sharansky echoed Mitch Adler’s sentiment that Israel’s culture of familiarity, with an openness to criticism and respect for creativity, represents a natural medium to cultivate a high-tech industry.
Saphra, a Taglit alumnus, agreed. For her, the intersection of Jewishness and science added a layer of intensity and meaning to this specific Israel experience.
“On one level, Jews are ‘my people,’” she said. “On another level, scientists are ‘my people.’ The fact that there is such overlap between these two communities reinforces my Jewish connection.”
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