Matan Bilavsky, who turns ten later this month, has already built robots that can climb ramps and sumo wrestle with other ‘bots. So has Nathan Hill, and he’s only six. Technological wizardry in the genes of Boulder, CO, youngest residents finds expression at Chabad Lubavitch of Boulder County’s monthly Youth Zone robot building workshops, where tomorrow’s scientists come for the gadgetry and stay for the Jewish activities.
A crowd of thirty Jewish children, 5 to 12, gather round what looks like a pile of Legos, but is actually bricks from the specialized “Mindstorm” set. Sara Rochel Scheiner, 10, pieces together a robot that looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a bulldozer, with shovels and sensors. Building it “is the easy part,” said Sara Rochel. Programming the robot to do and go where it’s supposed to is harder. “Mine kept going straight when I wanted it to turn.”
After a half-hour of ‘bot building and racing, the kids switch over to Chabad of Boulder representative Chanie Scheiner’s Jewish activity session. Following an activity as engaging as ‘bot construction is tough, these kids have very little tolerance for lame worksheets or coloring with crayons. According to Steven Hill, Scheiner succeeds admirably. “Chany is the most creative person I know when it comes to Jewish activities,” said Hill. At one memorable meeting, the children sculpted fruit-shaped candies for Tu Bishevat and leaped forward and backward during an active game show style quiz. Afterwards, the kids were on a high. The activities “keep them interested and happy,” said Hill, an atmospheric physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Children this age don’t learn from lectures. It needs to be experiential for the Jewish learning to get imprinted.”
Every session of robot building is full to capacity with up to 30 children in attendance. Children on the waiting list step in when cancellations arise. The success of the program proves the axiom understood by vibrant Chabad centers: Know your community. Boulder is in the heart of Colorado’s science and technology corridor. Two of the world’s ten fastest supercomputers are in the state. Cyberstate 2005, a state-by-state overview of the high technology industry, ranked Colorado number one in the U.S. for concentration of high tech workers; 91 of every 1000 private workers are classified as high tech.
“We want children to see Judaism is alive and fun,” said Scheiner. “The robot program is what gets them to come – it’s very different and really cool. But they enjoy the Jewish segment of the program as well.”
Shoshi Krongold Bilavsky, principal of Boulder Jewish Day School, heard about robot building as a kids’ activity from a friend in New York and brought the idea to Scheiner. “I thought, ‘this is upbeat and modern,’” said Bilavsky. “Chanie took the idea, gave it a Jewish twist and flew with it.” Bilavsky’s son Matan enjoyed tinkering with robots so much that the family hired Bits, Bytes and Bots, the company that runs Chabad’s robot-making activity to host Matan’s birthday party. Bilavsky estimates half the Youth Zone kids are students at her day school and sees the program as “enriching their Jewish life” and demonstrating that Judaism is “not just old stuff from 2000 years ago.”
On another level, the activity gives Boulder’s Jewish children an excuse to get to know each other. There are one or two Jews in Shira Hill’s class at a local public school. “Increasing Jewish social contact at this age is just really essential,” said her father Steven. Besides, “As opposed to ‘let’s paint clay pots,’ robot building is intriguing, a little bit out of the normal box and cool.”