Accommodation Reached Over Shabbat Scheduling Enables Berman Students To Compete in Statewide Robotics Competition

Berman’s Robotics Team. Photo Courtesy of Berman Hebrew Academy.

Modern Orthodox students at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville thought they would not be able to compete in a statewide robotics competition this week because it fell on Shabbat.

But officials of FIRST LEGO League brought in a panel of judges three days earlier to ensure that the first Orthodox Jewish school to compete in the contest would have a shot at demonstrating their robotics skills.

“Our kids can’t compete on Shabbat, and they were incredibly accommodating,” said Dr. Shira Loewenstein, Berman’s middle school principal. The officials agreed to allow a panel of judges to come to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and do an entire competition just for Berman’s team.

This was the first year that Berman middle school formed a team to compete. The ten students earned second place honors in the regional competition, which qualified them to compete statewide. The regional meet was on a Sunday.

The students spent months programming the robots to perform tasks in guidelines set by the FIRST LEGO League. “The kids have to use their creativity and imagination to build the robot and program them to operate,” Loewenstein said. “Something that can make the world a little bit better.”

STEM education is a strong part of the curriculum at Berman, Lowenstein said. Many students take computer coding and engineering classes. In addition, there is less formal programming offered after school.

Ezra Letterman, an eighth-grade student at Berman, said this is the first year his school has competed in robotics. “I joined because I was on the team last year and I thought it would be fun to mess around with Legos and robots.”

Ezra, 13, says he likes the program. “I’m very glad I was able to get into it.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hametz is director of STEM education and innovation and director of education technology at Berman. He said the FIRST LEGO League is an international competition that runs at different levels from early learner through high school.

“The program leverages the Lego robotics tool set to have competitions,” said Hametz, who has worked with Lego as a Lego master educator.

Lego was one of the first companies to build robotics platforms for young people. “Lego has been in the kid robotic space for a really long time. It’s not what they’re most known for, but it’s something they certainly have a lot of pride in.”

He was impressed by the students’ performance at the regional qualifying competition. “They did far better than expected because we’re a rookie.”
Berman faced off against 10 other schools and all except Berman had competed in prior years. Four hundred teams compete throughout the state of Maryland. Only 60 get to go to the state championships.

The competing teams start with a set of challenges that involve autonomously programming a robot to do tasks. “It might be moving an object across a field or navigating through a maze or lifting a heavy load for transport. They must accomplish each task in a time frame with points awarded for completing the task,” Hametz said.

Hametz was pleased with the accommodation reached over the Shabbat scheduling. “It would cut against our values at Berman Hebrew Academy to attend a robotics competition on Shabbat. We asked how we could find an accommodation so that our students, who’ve worked hard and made it to the next level, don’t just get put by the side.”

Hametz said it’s important for students to participate in the outside world and to have their Jewish identity represented.

The experience competing has been invaluable for the students. “I think my students have really gained a tremendous amount. We’ve talked a lot about what it means to be Jewish and compete in the field of robotics.”

Berman Hebrew Academy hired a coach, Ryan Rich, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, to guide the students in everything from coding to robotics to project management.

As part of the Innovation Project in the competition, the students do a high school-level research project and then develop a solution to a problem they have seen. “Our students were presented with the problem of affordable housing construction. They’ve developed this amazing, clever solution that combines autonomous vehicles with 3D printing.”

Hametz added, “I want students to have to grapple with their Judaism and their secular robotics and engineering challenges.”

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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