At a ‘Hackathon’ in Brooklyn, Jewish teens solve real-world problems faced by an Israeli food bank

Kate Glick and Eliana Pell, friends and students at The Leffell School, a Jewish day school in Westchester, consider themselves budding engineers.

“In my engineering class at school, we code and we build circuits — I like to think about problems and solve them,” Glick, a tenth grader, told the New York Jewish Week. 

Still, the pair didn’t know what to expect when they, along with three other classmates — Spencer Kolodny, Avery Brown and Alex Wigder — signed up for the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education’s Hackathon. Sixteen other Jewish day schools competed in the annual engineering competition, which took place Wednesday in a warehouse across the street from CIJE’s headquarters at Industry City, a six million-square-foot mixed-use compound in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 

“I don’t even know what I was picturing,” Pell said, surveying the room bustling with 180 other students clustered at tables or sitting on couches working on their projects. “But it’s way more fun than I thought.”

CIJE began 15 years ago as a way to develop STEM curricula and events for kindergartners through 12 graders at more than 200 Jewish day schools across the country. “We saw the lack in the United States of STEM education, and even more so in our Jewish day schools, so we started these programs,” Philip Brazil, the organization’s vice president of development, said.

The Hackathon draws a diverse range of Jewish high schools in the Tri-State area, including Orthodox, single-gender schools like the all-girls Shevach High School in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens and Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Washington Heights, and co-ed community day schools like the Leffell School and the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy in Stamford, Connecticut.

The teams compete in engineering and coding competitions to create a solution for a real-world problem the Jewish community faces, or to try and solve a problem that Israeli start-ups are tackling themselves. In years past, teams have competed to find ways to improve nursing home conditions or optimize well usage in Africa.

This year, the students were tasked with aiding relief efforts in Israel following the deadly attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. To kick off this year’s Hackathon, the group heard a short presentation from the Israeli food bank Leket Israel about the work they do and the problems they’ve faced in recent months, including staffing shortages due, in part, to Israeli employees being called up to the reserves and Palestinian workers no longer able to cross the border. 

Once the presentation ended, the teams had just over four hours to identify a specific Leket-related problem they wanted to solve, think of a solution and build a prototype. They also needed to code a website that would upload the results of their design. 

The task seemed incredibly daunting to this English major, but the Leffell team was unfazed — in fact, all the groups were. Although the assignment was just given to the students that morning and they were all newbies — per the competition rules, schools couldn’t send students who had participated in the Hackathon before — they had all taken classes that were part of CIJE’s two-year engineering curriculum. In it they learned how to operate microprocessors, use sensors and controllers to measure data, as well as instantly upload data to a computer and code a website to display it. 

Click to continue reading.