Friday, October 19, 2018

In recent decades, Israel has earned a well-deserved reputation as a hotbed of creativity and technological innovation. As institutions that identify our connection with Israel as foremost among our priorities, is there a way for North American Jewish day schools to cultivate this reputation for themselves as well? How can we enable ourselves to be seen by the wider world as forward-thinking, highly inventive places in which we deploy advanced STEAM education as a vehicle for exercising our moral values?

A possible key to establishing this synergy lies in the work of TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers), a project of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Group. Recently named one of Forbes Magazine’s “15 Technology Companies to Watch in 2018,” TOM hosts events around the world that bring together engineers, makers and software developers with people with disabilities (known in TOM culture as “need-knowers”) to design and fabricate new products to solve everyday problems in the lives of the need-knowers.

Our school recently hosted the first-ever high school TOM makeathon. In partnership with local need-knowers, 12th grade students in our Engineering and Entrepreneurship program utilized the skills they have developed in design, engineering, coding, product fabrication, collaboration and creativity to craft new, life-altering products over the course of a 12 hour period. Examples included:

• An elderly woman has limited mobility on one side of her body and is blind in one eye. Because of difficulties with both walking and depth perception, she often has trouble identifying stairs and other obstacles that she is approaching, especially in low light. The team of students devised an LED light system, which can be embedded in her shoe, that produces a distorted light pattern when she approaches uneven terrain and alerts her to possible danger.

• A 4-year-old child with dwarfism was having trouble utilizing the bathroom independently. The team working with him created a sturdy, foldable, portable stool that had features designed specifically to make it suitable for restroom use.

• A local high school student with cerebral palsy has difficulty carrying his books and papers to class. The team of students working with him designed and built some custom modifications to his wheelchair that enable him to carry and access his materials with ease.

• One of our own alumni, now in her 20s, has mobility challenges, uses a cane and therefore has difficulty carrying things. Our current students worked with her to modify her cane (using both high-tech and low-tech approaches) to make everyday tasks like grocery shopping easier for her.

This event was an embodiment of the unique combination that defines the missions of our day schools: academic innovation, strong moral character and the enactment of Jewish values to improve the world. As we are now learning, through partnerships with TOM and other Israeli startups, schools can enact this distinctive mission while at the same time fortifying our students’ commitment to ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel.


 By Michael Kay, PhD

 Michael A. Kay, PhD is head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester since 2013. He received his bachelor’s degree in religion and history from Harvard University and his PhD in educational leadership and Jewish Studies from New York University. 

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