Friday Night Hackathon unites, and divides, hacktivists

An innovative community-driven programming event promises to do good for Israel and the Jews — on Shabbat

Illustrative. An Israeli soldier in front of computer monitors. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative. An Israeli soldier in front of computer monitors. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

For the first time ever, a “round the world” hackathon to support Israel and foster Jewish identity is being held, with hackers toiling away in both Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The event is open to all hackers who can, as sponsors say, help “bring the do-gooder hacking culture of creating open-source, open-data software and applications for positive change to community projects related to Israel and the wider Jewish world.”

All hackers, that is, except Sabbath-observant ones: The event is being held on Friday night and will run for a day-plus, through Saturday evening.

The Friday Night Hackathon will run more or less simultaneously both in Tel Aviv (in the Google building) and in San Francisco. Because of time differences, the Israeli event (which began at 10 a.m. Friday) will run substantially longer than the US event. Both end at midnight Saturday, local time.

One can get a lot of hacking — or, more accurately, programming — done during that time. In Tel Aviv, hackers will be working on a project called “Open Muni — Open Budget,” an application created to make Israeli municipal budgets more transparent and accessible, so that local citizens can know more about how their funds are allocated and spent.

The San Francisco group, meanwhile, will be developing applications to enhance Jewish connectedness and community. One proposed project, for example, is called “Open Dorms,” a college roommate-finder app that allows rising freshmen to locate roomies with similar Jewish backgrounds.

The event is jointly sponsored by an Israeli group called “Hasadna,” a nonprofit organization that works with Israeli governmental bodies to make data openly accessible on the Internet. On the American side, the sponsor is the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which sponsors a host of programs aimed at enhancing Jewish identity and community.

“Our support for Friday Night Hack is rooted in our belief that technology, innovation and entrepreneurship have a key role to play addressing global challenges,” said Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Schusterman Foundation. “It’s an amazing opportunity to bring together the innovation capitals of Tel Aviv and the greater Silicon Valley to hack for a good cause and to open up a flow of ideas between the innovation sector and the power, drive and creativity surfacing in the Jewish world.”

Speaking for the Israeli side, Yuval Admon, CEO of Hasadna, said that the Open Muni — Open Budget project “will strengthen leaders and citizens alike in Israel’s local municipalities by providing a platform that will allow sharing and social interaction with the budget and spending. The technology behind it can also be adapted and adopted in municipalities around the world to provide a similar type of transparency. It is another example of how hackathons are a great way to get developers, coders and content creators together, working on building ideas into web and mobile applications and channeling creative energy into making our communities a better place.”

But the fact that the event is taking place on Friday night — Shabbat — has generated some flack for the groups. In a typical comment, one Jewish community activist wrote on Friday Night Hackathon’s Facebook page that it was “a shame that this event is taking place over Shabbat. None of the numerous Shabbat observant ‘hackers’ will be able to participate in this event. There is a consensus among all the major recognized Jewish organizations and religious streams that Shabbat is not publicly desecrated.The Schusterman Foundation is the major funder of Hillel, AIPAC’s college program, ROI community and other programs for young Jewish adults which all refrain from publicly desecrating the Sabbath. Why this sudden break from the consensus?”

A programmer associated with the event — he requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue — said that the groups had actually looked into other dates, and decided to fall back on Friday night because that was the only time available. “Because of the time differences and the fact that Israelis work on Sundays, this was the only option available,” the hacker said, admitting that both groups had been getting flack for the event.

“The event is not going to ignore Shabbat or Judaism,” the programmer continued. “They will be having a Friday night dinner, and the entire event is dedicated to improving Israel and the Jewish community.”

In a statement, Esty Katz, Hasadna’s Friday Night Hackathon project leader, said: “Hasadna is a pluralistic organization that welcomes and creates opportunities for all different types of people, beliefs, cultures and levels of religious observance. In our experience running hackathons over the past three years, we have found the best time to bring people together in Israel is on the weekend because most people cannot take time off of work to participate. We start early on Friday morning and end late Saturday night to try and accommodate as many people as possible throughout the event. We have found that this set up works really well, especially since most participants tend not to stay for the full duration of a hackathon anyway.

“In addition to hackathons, we also host weekly meetups on Mondays in Tel Aviv that are open to all who can attend. One of our goals as an organization is to create a community, starting in Israel and expanding it globally, which we are doing with Friday Night Hackathon and we are excited to incorporate a Shabbat dinner. We hope to bring in more people and create more opportunities for cooperation for the greater good. We see this as the first step in a long journey.”

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