The 25 young professionals from around the world who signed up for The Israel Tech Challenge this month did not expect rocket sirens and bomb shelters. They expected 10 days of titillating talks from the biggest names in Israel’s tech industry, a 36-hour hackathon to show off their coding chops, and connections to Israeli jobs.
The program, a hi-tech upgrade on Taglit-Birthright Israel, selects participants from more than 600 applications aged 20-30 who are leaders in the hi-tech field and brings them to Israel to help them make inroads.
“The people who get to us are looking for a professional challenge and they feel that in Israel they can develop at a higher level than abroad,” said Nofar Amikam, an alumna of the army’s illustrious 8200 intelligence unit who helped found the program. “There’s a feeling of greater freedom and creativity in Israel.”
Amikam and several friends from 8200 who had made aliya noticed that immigrants to Israel who lacked strong professional connections had more trouble finding job satisfaction, often leaving Israel as a result.
With funding from the Jewish Agency, private donors and several hi-tech companies, the Israel Tech Challenge was born. Unlike Birthright, which seeks to build Jewish identity in its participants, the challenge looks for people in the hi-tech world who already have a Zionist connection, and are even considering aliya.
“I’ve been thinking about this whole aliya thing for two years, but was concerned about leaving a stable job and coming to a country with all this uncertainty,” said Alex Frazer, 28, from Houston, Texas, on a quick break from the hackathon that will mark the end of the program.
He and three other participants are quickly developing a proof of concept for smart traffic lights that can use CCTV cameras to recognize when cars are needlessly waiting at red lights at empty intersections.
They calculate that if cities adopt such technology, they could halve the time it takes cars to get to their destinations.
Judges from major companies, such as PayPal, Wix and IBM will pick a winner.
“There’s a Zionist and patriotic angle, to bring the best talent in the world to one place,” said Matan Parnes, the general manager of PayPal Israel, which hosted the hackathon.
“Good things always come out of it.”
Pitching in to the hi-tech program, he adds, is a coup for his company because they get access to fresh talent from abroad for internships, which often lead to jobs.
Indeed, said Alex, the program has made aliya a far more realistic decision. Of the 50 participants in the past two trips, 10 are currently working in Israel.
Surprisingly, the rockets have not deterred any of the participants.
“It hasn’t bothered me,” said Anthony Arnold from Brisbane, Australia. “I don’t know if it’s the Israeli personality, or what, but they’re all like, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.’” When a siren sounded while they were outside and he got separated from the group, he added, he was “more worried about getting lost in Tel Aviv than getting hit by a rocket.”
The last time 20-year-old Melissa Weintraub, an Informatics major at the University of Michigan, was in Israel, her experience was very different.
She was studying at a seminary, living in the Old City of Jerusalem, and there were no rockets.
The experience of running for cover while interning at a major hi-tech company in Tel Aviv through the Tech Challenge’s summer program has shown her a different side of Israel.
“It’s a really different experience,” she said. “I don’t think the security issue will stop me. It’s alarming at times and scares my family and friends overseas, but at the end of the day this is where I feel I should be.”