Robotics tourney draws Israeli teens to town

Israeli students from ORT Binyamina try to troubleshoot a problem with their robot during the FIRST Robotics competition held at the Edward Jones Dome.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In a crowded booth festooned with Israeli flags and strewn with backpacks, basketballs and power tools, Shani Attia is happy to share her one unmistakable impression of the United States.

“It’s huge!” she said.

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“Everything is so huge and new to me,” added the 18-year-old who captains a team from a technological school in central Israel. “And just talking English all the time is so much fun.”

Dozens of teens from Israel were able to have that kind of fun at the Edward Jones Dome late last week as participants in the FIRST Robotics competition championship. The annual event, now in its third decade, started its season with more than 2,300 teams of robot-building high schoolers from around the globe. 

Most were from the United States but squads also formed in 11 other nations from Turkey to the Dominican Republic. After the U.S. and Canada, the Jewish State is the third largest producer of competitors for the event, which featured mobile robots shooting basketballs and then trying to balance on a central teeter totter. Of 44 Israeli teams, five made it to the championship round in St. Louis including Attia’s, a group dubbed the Jokers.

Attia wasn’t just the captain. She also had the distinction of being the sole female on the team.

“I think of myself as the mother,” she laughed. “It was like ‘Did you eat? Did you sleep?’”

She also hoped to impart larger lessons to her crew. Before leaving Israel, the team had participated in a number of charitable endeavors raising money for sick children through a bake sale and teaching the elderly to use computers.

“I wanted them to do things for others and not just stay in the technical stuff,” Attia said. “We are here for the robotics but the community service is very important.”

Nearby, at a school from the 

city of Modi’in Maccabim Re’ut, team members were dealing with a crisis. Gathered around their ailing machine, half a dozen teens were trying to diagnose the problem.

“Our robot is not working as we want right now but we are doing all we can to make it better,” said Itay Tamir, a 19-year-old mentor of the group, which is in its seventh year but its first trip to the finals. 

As the students worked feverishly, Eti Hershkovich, team manager, reflected on the delegation’s visit to town. Like some of the other Israelis, her team was able to connect with the Jewish community in St. Louis during their visit, stopping by the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur for the observance of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

“This was the first time for each one of them to see the ceremony in the Jewish community outside of Israel,” she said. “It was a good experience.”

She said the group had even done their own commemoration in the hotel with each student doing a reading about a soldier who had died.

“We took the ceremony from Israel and brought it here to St. Louis,” she said.

For Liann Haham, an 18-year-old student from a school in the region between Haifa and Tel Aviv, the observance at the JCC was a special one. The American-born Haham, who made aliyah at age 12, plans on doing a stint in the military soon, making this her final chance to spend the somber occasion in her home region of Israel. Yet she was torn since she also wanted to attend the FIRST competition. 

She chose the latter but said she felt instantly as though she were back in Israel while at the St. Louis commemoration.

“The first song they sang was by a girl I knew,” she said. “She used to go to our school and her brother was killed in the second Lebanon war.”

Despite being defeated in their first match, Haham’s teammates had much to be proud of already. Though none of the Israeli teams came away with the final trophy, her squad, named Artemis for the Greek goddess of the hunt, had already secured the coveted Chairman’s Award for their region. The honor is given to the team that does the most to spread passion about science and technology in the community and many consider it just as important as the championship itself.

“When we won it in Israel, I have to say, I burst into tears and cried for half an hour,” said teammate Adar Maor, 16.

The team was honored by being allowed a visit with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Artemis also helped do an interesting social service project by pulling together Israeli middle schoolers from Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. Haham said that, at first, the kids were somewhat reticent but after conversation began flowing, it got easier.

“People said, ‘Wow, we didn’t know it would be this way,’” she recalled. “‘When is the next time you are coming back?’”

She noted that the session focused, not on religion or conflict, but on both groups becoming acquainted with each other.

“We’re not psychologists or politicians but we do believe it should be a joint community where everybody is working together,” she said. “There’s no reason that there’s somebody who lives five minutes away from me I should not know.”

On the other side of the building, Yonatan Melech of Misgav High School in the Galilee region, said his team had been engaged in a good deal of cross-cultural exchange as well, speaking with other squads at FIRST.

“It’s really interesting learning about them and letting them learn about us,” he said.

The 18-year-old said his crew, which was marking its seventh year at the finals, had been signing buttons with the Hebrew names of interested passersby. 

“They really like it because most of the people here never saw the Jewish alphabet,” he said.

Melech was impressed by his visit to St. Louis, particularly his stopover at the Yom Hazikaron event.

“I didn’t know anything about the St. Louis Jewish community but when we visited the JCC it was just this huge building with so many people,” he said. “It’s great knowing that there are Jews everywhere and there is a home for Jews here.”