Robotics unites Israeli, Arab students at competition in St. Louis

(From right) Taima Sawaed, an Arab high school student and Ofer Rubin, an Israeli teacher, look on as their team prepares a robot for competition. Photos: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When asked about the challenges of bringing Jewish and Arab students together to compete as a team in a robotics competition, educator Ofer Rubin did not hesitate.

“First of all, the challenge is to build a robot that will walk and (complete) all the missions,” said Rubin, who is from Misgav, in northern Israel, and was one of 350 Israelis to attend the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition in St. Louis last week.

More than 29,000 students gathered at the Dome at America’s Center and Union Station to compete in events such as the FIRST LEGO League Challenge, where participants had to develop solutions to the world’s trash problems and guide a robot along a playing field.

There were 11 teams from Israel competing at the challenge, which took place during the final days of Passover. In addition to Israelis and Arabs working together, American Jews also helped Israeli Jews who were observant and could not drive robots on the last two days of the holiday.

For the Americans, Israelis and Arabs, the goal of succeeding in the competition took precedence over their cultural differences.

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“When I see Jews and Arabs together in the same class, talking together, thinking together” about how to solve a problem “it’s nice,” said Rubin, who along with an Arab teacher, led the five Israeli and six Arab students to St. Louis.

Since their collaboration started two years ago, the Arab students have traveled each week from Sallama, a village in the northern Galillee, to the school in Misgav, which is about 7 miles away.

“At first it was hard for us because of the difference in the language,” said Taima Sawaed, 15, a student in Sallama.

But the students used a combination of Hebrew and Arabic to communicate with each other. The next challenge was programming, which was new to some of the Arab students, Sawaed said.

“In our school we don’t do that a lot. It’s not popular,” said Sawaed.

But eventually the students on the Apollo team made progress and in February won a FIRST national robotics competition in Israel to qualify for the championship in St. Louis, which included participants from more than 40 countries. For Sawaed, it was her first trip to the United States.

“We are very grateful that we have this opportunity to come to America,” said Sawaed, as other team members tested a robot on a practice court inside Union Station. She was pleased with her team’s performance when interviewed Friday.

The judges honored the team with its Building Bridges award.

A team from Binyamina finished in second place out of the 800 teams. Teams from Haifa, Ha’kfar Ha’yarok, Hertzeliya, Kfar Yona and Yeruham also won awards.

As teams manned booths inside a ballroom at Union Station, a group of teenage girls from Yeruham in southern Israel walked around the room with Israeli flags, chanting “El, El, Israel.”

“When we play, we actually shout, ‘Israel,’ to show everyone that we are from Israel,” said Morag Amar, a 15-year-old, on the Twist Team from Yeruham. “In the matches, everyone is quiet, and we are the only ones that shout, so everyone hears us.”

The team also recruited competitors from Highland Park, Ill. to help them since the competition took place during Passover.

Jackie Hirsch, who is also Jewish, drove the robots for the observant Jews.

Of her relationship with the Israelis, Hirsch, 15, said, “It’s two different cultures that get to be together and have fun.”

The Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University also hosted a dinner on April 28 at the America’s Center for those who were observing Passover. More than 350 people attended, according to Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of the Chabad center. He said the dinner provided a respite from all the tech talk for attendees. The founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, who is Jewish, spoke at the dinner and “broke into a spontaneous song of ‘Hevenu Shalom Aleichem’” Novack said. The teens from Israel and the United States “mobbed” Kamen, Novack said.

“They treat him like a rock star, like a basketball star,” Novack said.

Afterwards, unable to use cars, cell phones or robots on the holiday, Novack and staff walked seven miles from America’s Center to Washington University.