Battle bots

Jewish students from across U.S. duke it out in N.Y. to see whose robots reign supreme

Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education hosts robotics tournament to promote STEAM in day schools, yeshivas

In the American yeshiva world, physically active sports like basketball and hockey sat atop the coolness hierarchy for years, and winning competitions like Yeshiva University’s annual high school Sarachek basketball tournament was the height of prestige. 

Recently, however, that ladder has grown to include more mentally-focused extracurriculars, as Jewish day schools around the United States have begun to embrace the importance of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) programming in their classrooms.

In that vein, nearly 40 Jewish day schools and yeshivas from across the country came together at the Fort Washington Avenue Armory in New York City’s Washington Heights on Tuesday afternoon to compete in a robotics tournament hosted by the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education’s (CIJE), in partnership with the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition.

“I was an athlete as a kid. I played sports, every sport. I was a captain on most of the teams I played on, but these kids, a lot of these kids, aren’t that, and there’s a lot of educational, great things for this, but it’s also a huge opportunity for these kids to work on teams, to collaborate together,” Philip Brazil, CIJE vice president of development, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “A lot of times these are the kids who might be getting 100s in school or maybe some of the kids [whose minds work] differently, and this suits them, and it’s giving opportunities to so many kids [who] never had anything like that before.”

CIJE was created in 2001 to expand and enhance the education that Jewish students in the U.S. were receiving. Today, around 200 Jewish schools are in CIJE’s network.

“The education system in many countries, even those that were considered third-world countries, were getting much better, and the fear was that our kids, unless we did better things to educate them, would fall behind,” CIJE President Jason Cury told eJP. “We don’t expect all these kids, when they graduate high school and go on to college, that they’re all going to be engineers. But we want them to have the ability to think in that way, because you can do anything if you think that way.”

In addition to classroom-based programming, CIJE puts on a number of individual competitions and events across the country, with two larger tournaments happening in the fall and spring of each year, according to Adam Jerozolim, CIJE’s director of curriculum development. Many of the competing teams came from around the tristate area, but a handful flew in from states as far away as Illinois, Florida and Texas. Schools with larger robotics programs entered more than one team — The Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., for example, had five groups competing in the high school division.

Inside the Armory’s Nike Track & Field Center, hoards of elementary, middle and high school students milled around in various stages of competition; battled for points in makeshift arenas; and put last-minute fixes onto their robotic submissions, each of which was built and coded by the students themselves.

“There’s coding, there’s engineering, every single one of these robots was probably built five times, six times. Because [the students] fail, they realize, ‘we got to do something better,’ [then] they fail again. [We are] teaching kids that there’s nothing better than failure until you succeed,” Brazil said.

The left side of the tournament’s stadium held the middle school competition: teams from opposing schools worked together to earn points gained through skills performed by their respective robots. Each team competed in around five rounds — with rotating partners — the scores from which were then averaged for an individual total.

In the center, high school teams battled each other in 2-on-2-style cage matches with more advanced robots, working to both score themselves points and block their competitors from doing so.

“The middle school, which is very interesting, is a lot more wholesome than the high school. They are playing together. There’s no competition on the match,” Brazil said. “The high school is more of a bang-it-robots-type.”

The elementary competition was housed to the arena’s right: a similar teamwork-based skills match to the middle schoolers, but with more basic technology and requirements. This was the first tournament since CIJE launched the competition in 2019 that included elementary-aged participants — only eight schools received invitations.

Nearly three hours of qualifying rounds determined which middle and high school teams made it into the playoffs. For the middle school competitors, this would be a final round of alliance matches before  the three highest scoring teams would be awarded first, second and third place titles. In the high school division, the winning spots were decided by a March Madness-esque elimination bracket featuring the top eight qualifiers.

A robotics team from Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway take first place in the high school competition. (Courtesy)

In the end, a team from Brooklyn’s Mazel Day School won first place in the elementary division; teams from Mazel Day School and Brauser Maimonides Academy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., led the middle school competition; and teams from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR) in Lawrence, N.Y., and Katz Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, Fla., took the high school title.

“This is an amazing opportunity for students in our middle school to come together in a program that supports teamwork, critical thinking, working hard, overcoming challenges, and it’s an opportunity to showcase things that are maybe not always sports,” Hanna Shekhter, director of STEM innovation and education at Brauser, told eJP. “This [tournament] is another kind of opportunity for a team, an academic team, to come together, and we want to give our students as many opportunities as possible.”