Israel is sometimes known as the “start-up nation,” because of its technological innovation. Twenty-five Jewish young adults, accompanied by technology entrepreneurs and chief technology officers as mentors, recently experienced the Israeli tech scene firsthand, when they took part in Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 12-day Taglit Tech Challenge.
The challenge, which ran from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, gave the participants, who hailed from the U.S., Argentina and France, the opportunity to explore Israel’s technology industry, meet with industry experts and entrepreneurs, witness cooperation between research and development, and show off their programming and development skills in software competitions, specifically a 36-hour civics programming competition known as a “hackathon.”
The 12-day trip was the first of its kind and was part of the Israel Tech Challenge project, an Israel-based cooperative effort between The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israel government and Taglit-Birthright Israel. The project serves as a way to help young Jews grow as professionals in the computer science industry by connecting them with Israeli tech industry leaders and projects.
“I think even though 12 days is a short time, the participants learned important lessons about what’s going on in Israel in terms of tech,” says Oren Toledano, a founding member and the executive director of Israel Tech Challenge. Toledano founded Israel Tech Challenge with Raphael Ouzan, a data and cyber-security expert who leads BillGuard’s tech and product teams in Tel Aviv. Ouzan is also the founder of BillGuard, which is a mobile phone app that helps users track their spending.
Aaron Bornstein, 22, of Bethesda, says the tech-focused trip was great for those interested in Israeli technology, as it allowed them to meet experts from companies and start-ups such as Google, PayPal, IBM and Wix, and tour the Technion and Telecom labs.
“We had the opportunity to meet with the people who founded the company [The Gifts Project] bought by Ebay, [which is] now in Tel Aviv,” says Bornstein, who is pursuing a double major in history and computer science at Goucher College, a liberal arts college in Towson.
Aside from meeting with experts and entrepreneurs, Bornstein also learned from his fellow participants, many of whom were also college students and interns at global companies like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft. “One of the things I gained the most from the trip was the connections I made,” he says.
The highlight of the event, though, was the 36-hour “hackathon” at PayPal’s Tel Aviv R&D (research and development) center. The group was divided into two teams and with the help of mentors, came up with ideas for software programs that could benefit society.
“We had to come up with a challenge that we thought could change the world, come up with what we thought were solutions [to the challenge], and work for 36 hours to develop an end project,” says Bornstein, who worked on a project that could allow people to streamline experiences through photos via photo mosaics. “It was really interesting for me, coming from a liberal arts background, to engage with participants I wouldn’t be able to meet otherwise.”
Toledano adds that the mentors on hand were beneficial, as they showed participants how to look at a problem and quickly define the solution. Bornstein and fellow Challenge participants got to present their projects in front of the likes of Start-up Nation author Saul Singer and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
While this 12-day trip was only in conjunction with Taglit-Birthright Israel, Toledano says Israel Tech Challenge will also run similar programs this year with Masa and Onward Israel, which will involve internships and fellowships that may run as long as 10 months.
“We intend to have more and more of these programs in partnership with Birthright,” he says, “to bring to Israel the best and the brightest of the international tech community to meet, exchange and learn with their Israeli peers.”