Some might be surprised to hear that in the midst of a promising hi-tech career, computer whiz Ronit Slyper took a year off to hike around Israel and write a user-friendly book about it. The how and the why is a story in itself. Her unique illustrated guide, Tripping out of Tel Aviv, describes short trips accessible by public transportation.
Though Slyper wrote the text and handled the printing, two mentors gave her inspiration and encouragement. One was her father, Dr. Arnold Slyper, a retired professor of pediatrics who recently launched a website about hikes in the Jerusalem area.
The other was new immigrant, Italian-born Moshe Haiym Polacco. Not only had Slyper participated in some Polacco hikes, through his Metaylim Be Sababa (Joyful Hiking) Facebook group, but she was impressed by his “huge heart, organizing free trips on his own initiative to connect over 3,000 Israelis and olim.”
Slyper adds, “In the past three years, Moshe has run some 85 trips for new immigrants and Israelis, all by public transportation. Four marriages have resulted from the group, including Moshe’s own!”
After consulting with Polacco, “Off I went hiking and writing! I added a lot of hikes of my own, too. I love to hike alone or with just a friend or two – I can head out spontaneously, explore whatever trails I fancy and enjoy the quiet.”
To raise funds for the book’s production, Slyper recruited Polacco again for Kickstarter, a global crowdfunding platform that advances creative projects, and to promote Facebook posting in various groups.
She summarizes her achievement by saying, “The writing experience included tons of fun learning about book design and layout and dealing with the printing industry here. The book reflects my passion for eco-friendly transportation (I bike everywhere in Tel Aviv). My other passion is being a Maker,” adds this robotics expert, “using rapid prototyping tools such as laser cutting and 3D printing, which I use for personal projects nowadays.”
DELVING INTO Slyper’s background, one discovers that she is the oldest of five girls, three of whom made aliyah in recent years. She grew up in a Modern Orthodox Milwaukee home and attended Hillel Academy there.
“They take all eighth graders on a class trip to Israel. I remember Jerusalem, Masada, Eilat, exotic, newness.” Slyper also remembers learning in sixth grade about Ezra’s mission to return the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, “but most didn’t go. Our teacher commented that they were too comfortable in Babylon to bestir themselves. And I remember thinking, young as I was, that that was hypocritical – we could get on a plane and be in Israel super easily, and here we were still in America!”
Slyper is first-generation American on her father’s side. He had come to the US from Wales for medical training, “and stayed when he met my mom. They moved to Milwaukee for work,” she explains. On her mom’s side were German-speaking Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Slyper’s grandmother escaped Berlin on the Kindertransport to England, while her grandfather fled Austria through Switzerland. Both subsequently moved to America, where they met.
After graduating the University of Michigan in math and computer science, Slyper completed a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2012. Throughout her graduate studies she worked at Disney Research, designing and building innovative projects.
These included a tongue joystick for hands-free computer control in the theme parks. Then, during a postdoctoral fellowship in robotics at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, she custom-built robots and created a control UI (user interface) for them. She also worked on an assistive feeding tools project.
After that, fresh from her fellowship, she joined a biomedical start-up, a formative but challenging experience. Those three years in the Start-Up Nation’s annals were “a whirlwind adventure doing every job imaginable. It was super exciting, we were figuring things out as we went along and operating on a combination of courage, good-heartedness and naïveté.” Despite supportive efforts rendered for the start-up as it progressed and the friends she made, the tasks were Sisyphean and left Slyper with a burned-out feeling.
After this deep, sometimes dizzying plunge into the Israeli start-up scene while still a new Israeli, Slyper took a break. The sabbatical when she wrote the book restored the delicate balance between life and work at that point in her career.
Though she misses Pittsburgh at times, she is happy here.
“I go to Yakar Tel Aviv, a jewel of a community shul. I’ve made some great friends, both Anglo and Israeli; we share Shabbat meals and try out kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv together. I tend to naturally make Anglo friends first, but then many have Israeli spouses, and that widens my cultural circle of friends.”
Slyper is enthusiastic about her current job as software engineer at Google’s machine intelligence department. She praises Google for “all these mitzva projects we don’t hear about. I’m part of a team working with hospitals to use machine learning for improving patient healthcare. I use my research skills from academia: the ability to deep-dive into new topics quickly.
“I feel incredibly lucky and honored to be working at Google, where we have amazing resources. Working at a start-up expanded my skill set, and as a group we tried to accomplish something great on a shoestring budget. Can I take the start-up enthusiasm and reach-for-the-stars attitude and apply it to Google resources? My plan for the future is to find out!”
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