With ‘cholent’ and prayers, Haredim bring tech to study of ancient texts

In first-ever hackathon for ultra-Orthodox developers, teams brainstorm with mentors on how to mesh AI, big data with Torah studies

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

In first-ever hackathon for Haredim at Facebook offices in Tel Aviv, ultra-Orthodox teams tackle bringing tech to study of ancient Jewish texts; November 16, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
In first-ever hackathon for Haredim at Facebook offices in Tel Aviv, ultra-Orthodox teams tackle bringing tech to study of ancient Jewish texts; November 16, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

In a first-ever hackathon for Haredi engineers and programmers, more than 200 men and women brainstormed with mentors from the Israeli tech industry for 18 hours last week — to come up with ways to inject artificial intelligence and big data sciences into the study of ancient Jewish texts.

Held at the Facebook Israel headquarters in Tel Aviv, the event was organized by KamaTech, a startup accelerator for ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs, together with Sefaria, a website for Jewish texts and translations, which allowed the developers to use its open platform to develop software programs.

“It was very exciting to implement the first Haredi hackathon in history,” said Moshe Friedman, the CEO of KamaTech. “We were surprised by the high number of ultra-Orthodox engineers and programmers who responded to our call to participate.”

“We thought there is nothing more natural than for members of the ultra-Orthodox community to develop software on the open platform of Sefaria that will bring the worlds of text analysis, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and similar technologies to the learning challenges of Jewish texts.”

KamaTech’s CEO, Moshe Friedman, left, taking a selfie with teams in the hackathon; Nov. 16-17, 2017 (Credit:Shuka Cohen)

The participants, most of whom have a deep knowledge of the Jewish texts, came up with ideas to combine technologies to make the learning process easier, in what Friedman dubbed a “celebration of Torah and technology.”

Some of the teams were made up of just men, some just women, and others combined the two. Sitting huddled over laptops in an open space of one floor in the Facebook offices in Tel Aviv, the teams toiled over their projects through the night.

They were fed glatt kosher food delivered specially for the event, and took breaks for evening and morning prayers. A warm cholent meal — a stew of beans and meat that is traditionally eaten on the Sabbath — was offered Thursday night at midnight too. The teams then pitched their projects on Friday morning to a jury that included Adi Soffer-Teeni, the CEO of Facebook Israel, Brett Lockspeiser, the founder of Sefaria, and members of the local venture capital and tech industries.

The winning project created an advanced search program for people who need to write Torah-based addresses: they can search among a collection of speeches by occasion, e.g., for a bar mitzva, a brit or circumcision, or a wedding. The winning team was an all-female one.

The runner-up teams created a smart bot that allows users to search all Jewish sources in the Sefaria database, and a site that automatically generates games based on materials studied on Sefaria — with tasks including hunting for missing words, crossword puzzles and complete the sentences.

Facebook Israel’s CEO, Adi Soffer-Teeni, third from left, with women participants in the Haredim hackathon; Nov. 16-17, 2017 (Credit: Shuka Cohen)

“We are offering them the use of all of the Jewish texts as a database,” said Lockspeiser, the founder of Sefaria, at the start of the hackathon. “The idea is to come up with any project that will be useful for Jewish learning.”

This is not the first time that Facebook Israel has teamed up with KamaTech to boost the participation of the ultra-Orthodox population in the tech scene as the social media giant strives for a diverse workforce, explained Omri Grinfeld, a technical recruiter at Facebook in Israel.

Haredi teams at work during Hackathon at Facebook offices in Tel Aviv; Nov. 16, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/TimesofIsrael)

As multinationals flock to Israel to set up research and development centers to tap into Israeli technologies, they compete with local startups and foreign peers for talented engineers and programmers. And as a shortage of these skilled workers looms over the next decade, Israel is looking to tap into populations — women, the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, who have been left mostly at the sidelines of the startup nation boom.

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