Jerusalem-based Hilma seeks to infuse hi-tech projects with social cause

Hilma’s concept is simple: incorporate the standards, work methods and ethics of top, hi-tech companies and infuse them with a social cause.

Members of Mifne 2525 and Karmel 6000 during tech training (photo credit: YOAV NETANYAHU)
Members of Mifne 2525 and Karmel 6000 during tech training
(photo credit: YOAV NETANYAHU)
There are very few moments in life where we are forced to stop and examine our purpose on this planet. Fewer still are the actions we take to divert the course of our lives. We usually shrug off the gnawing discomfort of a different path not taken and lost potential, push it down to that underlayer of our consciousness, and keep going with our routine. Life has a power of its own. But thankfully, some of us do listen to that voice calling for change and follow it.
For Michal Ophir, that moment came three years ago when she saw her younger sister tragically pass away from cancer at the age of 30. The stark manifestation of our temporal existence made her think about her own life, and she felt a need to do something more meaningful with it.
By chance, she stumbled across an article about a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, Yossi Tsuria, who together with his partner, Israel Yagel, had a vision for a new kind of enterprise called Hilma – a nonprofit organization that would focus on solving the needs of overlooked and forgotten segments of society. She immediately contacted him and said, “I want in!”
Hilma’s concept is simple: incorporate the standards, work methods and ethics of top, hi-tech companies and infuse them with a social cause. Stemming from the ancient Jewish concept of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” the new company wanted to find out how it can make a difference. They recognized that there is a segment of Israeli society that is unable to enlist in the IDF for religious, social or personal reasons, but is very talented and wants to contribute. Hilma quickly garnered government support, and was recognized as a social hi-tech National Service Program with additional support from Amit, an educational network based in Israel, and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
Michal volunteered in its first year, which had a pilot program of only two participants. She then decided to quit her successful high-paying job in EdTech and UX to work full time in Hilma as VP of projects. Now in just its second year of operations, it already has 55 young women and men in two cycles. Participants in the Carmel 6000 and Mifne 2525 programs go through a rigorous seven-week ‘Bootcamp’ where they train to become full-stack web developers, learning JavaScript, HTML5, VSCode and a lot of other acronyms I can’t even pretend to understand. Training continues throughout the first year in which members are assigned to teams and actively work on projects.
Michal Ophir, VP Projects, at Hilma (Photo Credit: Yoav Netanyahu)
Michal Ophir, VP Projects, at Hilma (Photo Credit: Yoav Netanyahu)
But these are not your regular hi-tech projects. Hilma workers meet with various NGOs, hospitals, and people with special needs to see how they can help. When they went to Ilanot, a school for children and teenagers with cerebral palsy, they learned about the students’ need to practice their hand-eye coordination. At Ilanot, they love playing games on their smartphones as much as any other kid (and frankly adults), but the mainstream games are too complex for their motor and cognitive skills. The solution that Hilma came up with is surprisingly simple. They developed a game called Expose It: the players move their fingers across a blank screen to expose an image. The beauty of it is that participants can choose what images to upload and can change the level of difficulty.
Hilma members came to present the app and had a little surprise for one of the students. He traced the screen until he saw his idols – the Israeli pop superstars Static and Ben El revealed. “His reaction was incredible,” says Ophir. “He was ecstatic and full of joy and wanted to move on to the next image. When we left the school, he asked us with tears of joy in his eyes, ‘Will you come back?’”
That student was part of the pilot program, and the school has now received the app so he can play it anytime he wants. “I feel like it was one of the most moving days of my life,” Ophir says. “To see someone who is helpless… and we made him happy instantly.”
Shalva Eisenberg, now in her second and last year of the program where members specialize in advanced technologies, worked on Expose It. “It was honestly really touching to watch them play,” says Eisenberg. “We’ve been working on a project so hard for months and we go and see these children playing games, being ecstatic when they accomplish something. For us, when we move our fingers across the screen, it’s like ‘OK,’ but for these children it’s just so exciting and a huge accomplishment for them. You hear it from their reactions. And the staff comes up and tells us, ‘Look it’s really making a difference.’”
Beit Issie Shapiro, a nonprofit based in Ra’anana that treats children with disabilities including Down syndrome, has great difficulty in motivating the often physically disabled children to exercise. Hilma’s young members’ solution was again surprisingly simple: to develop an app they named Songo that recognizes a bike’s pace and rhythm and plays a song as long as the bike is moving.
When one of the third graders was told that he has a bike lesson, he was less than thrilled about it, but as soon as the child started reluctantly peddling, he heard his favorite song. He quickly got the hang of it and was so excited to be hearing music he loves that he couldn’t stop biking.
“It was an incredible sight,” Ophir says. “He started peddling through the hallway. We had to tell him to be careful because he was riding so quickly. We made his day.”
Hanna Emuna, one of the Songo developers who is also in her second year in the program, says, “It really moves me when I see that something I’ve worked on for so long really has an impact.”
These are projects no other hi-tech company would even bother to think about. The market is so small that it makes no financial sense to put time or effort into it. That’s where Hilma comes in.
There are many other examples, such as an app called Smart Ride that facilitates the logistics of transportation for children with disabilities and special needs; Amigo, a chat bot designed to help in the rehabilitation process of people dealing with mental health issues; and Hospicall, which could potentially change the entire way patients in hospitals receive help from the nursing staff.
Hilma doesn’t seem to be stopping there. It opened a volunteer program for people from abroad called “Jtech leaders” that offers internships ranging from two months to a full gap year, which gives college credits. Participants undergo intense learning together with real work experience, while living and working in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. With a planned center in the north of Israel for the Arab community, a program for the ultra-Orthodox community and a new center in the south, the future looks promising.
The graduates of Hilma leave the program as full-stack web developers with experience in developing real world apps. But it seems like they gain much more than just career opportunities.
“It affected my attitude about people with physical disabilities and the elderly,” says Eisenberg. “It made me look around and think, ‘Hey, that’s an issue; maybe there is a technological way to solve it.’ To think in that mindset. Maybe we can solve this.”
Ophir says that “when our graduates leave here and go to work at Google or Amazon, I want them to have that ‘social bug’ so when a concept is developed they’ll say, ‘What about blind people? Let’s make sure this product works for them as well.’ And maybe some of them will open their own companies and do great things for the benefit of society, and then we would have accomplished our vision. Our greater vision is to turn Israel into a center for solutions for the benefit of society.”
“Making the world a better place” has become a cliché in the start-up field, used by every start-up CEO with a dating app, and it was beautifully satirized in the HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley.” But there is at least one company in Jerusalem that is actually living up to that promise.
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