Many bar- and bat-mitzvah kids mark their special day by doing something to “give back” to the community – volunteering in a soup kitchen, or raising money for a new TV at a senior citizen’s center. Raising $76,000 to establish Israel’s first mobile printing lab, replete with brand new 3D printers and other equipment, would probably be a bit more than most kids would want to bite off.
For 13-year-old Noah Helfstein, a 7th-grader at New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, however, it seemed like just the project to undertake. “I chose this project because of my passion for new technology and because I wanted to give disadvantaged children in Israel the same educational opportunity to interact with new technology that I have,” he said. “My family and I worked with UJA-Federation of New York’s Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah’ program to put my idea into action.”
That program is designed for kids who want to do something unique to celebrate their graduation into Jewish adulthood. “You’ll start by focusing on your own interests and hobbies, and then get together with a mitzvah coordinator at UJA-Federation and brainstorm about how you can truly make a difference,” the organizers said. “You can design a project to be carried out in New York, Israel, the former Soviet Union, or any number of other locations around the world — wherever your imagination takes you… The sky’s the limit when it comes to developing your mitzvah project.”
“Sky’s the limit” was exactly what Noah was thinking when he came up with the idea. Marshaling $76,000 he received in bar mitzvah gift money, he funded the first-ever “Maker Bus” – a renovated, full-size bus outfitted with innovative technologies and educational tools that will teach kids to become “makers” – a group that uses common household items, computers or other devices, musical instruments, cameras, printers, or even food and drink to create a new product or technology. It’s a type of hacking — not of computer code, but of the physical, with makers “mashing up” existing products and technologies to create something new.
The bus was inaugurated at a ceremony in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park on Thursday. “The Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah program of UJA-Federation enables bar and bat mitzvah students like Noah to put their interests and love for Israel and the Jewish people into action,” said Lori Strouch Kolinsky, director of the Manhattan division of UJA-Federation. “We are all so inspired by Noah and his incredible project, which will bring technology education to young Israelis and strengthen the relationship between New York’s Jewish community and Israel.”
Noah himself is an old hand at “making.”
“I began experimenting with electronics and circuits, including soldering, when I was 11 years old. Then, I started to experiment with 3D software, such as ThinkerCAD, and became proficient using a MakerBot. Later, I developed an interest in wood working, benefiting from many instructional videos on YouTube,” he said. And he wanted to give Israeli kids an opportunity to do the same.
Israel’s Reut and Ofanim groups are both partnering with Noah for the project. The Reut Group has been establishing 3D printing labs around the country for several years in order to bring more technological skills to poor and peripheral communities, while Ofanim promotes accessibility of technology and science throughout the Israeli periphery using extensive outreach and mobility.
Accompanying Noah to Israel to inaugurate the bus were his parents, Stacy and Jason Helfstein, his younger sister, Talia, and family friends. “We are so proud of Noah for choosing this bar mitzvah project,” said his parents, “and for wanting to help disadvantaged children have access to 3D printing and other new technology that Noah enjoys using himself.”