Adir Challenge names 3 winners for first phase of $1 million competition to tackle antisemitism

The initiative, named for the one of the organizer’s nephews who was murdered in the Oct. 7 attacks, selected three possible winners: a high schooler, a group of college students and a team of adult entrepreneurs

How can technology prevent antisemitism? On March 6, Morielle Lotan and Shay Hershkovitz issued a call to action to answer that question under the name the Adir Challenge, named for Lotan’s 23-year-old nephew who was murdered in the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. The competition, which plans to carry a prize of $1 million, is being launched to source bold, creative ideas for shaping major technology competitions aimed at combating antisemitism and hate on a global scale.

“The three topics that people are mostly concerned with are [tackling] social media, including news and online content; games or apps; and education — either educating common people or specifically educating antisemites,” Hershkovitz, the co-founder and president of the Adir Challenge, who has over 25 years of experience in the business-to-business strategy and research industry, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

In all, nearly 500 people from over 20 countries registered for the competition. Other entries, Hershkovitz said, included the use of crowdsourcing to tackle antisemitism, using advanced technologies such as virtual reality and blockchain and addressing antisemitism within organizations, using a human resources approach. “We wanted something meaningful and scalable, luckily we got that,” Hershkovitz, who is based in California, said. 

On Thursday, three winners of the first phase, the “Idea competition,” were announced, eJP was first to learn. Divided by Track A (high school students), Track B (college students) and Track C (general solvers, mostly entrepreneurs), the winners were notified via a virtual event featuring a panel of speakers: Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY); Yasmin Green, CEO of Google Jigsaw; and Hindy Poupko, UJA-Federation of New York senior vice president of community strategy and external relations. Each winner will receive $10,000 and be invited to compete in the culminating event later this year. 

“What we’re looking for isn’t so much the umbrella people are applied under, but more that they are thinking of proactive approaches towards antisemitism, because the central part of our foundation’s strategy is innovating the combat of antisemitism,” Lotan, the co-founder and CEO of the Adir Challenge, who lives in New York and has a background working in international security and strategy, told eJP. “So when going through a rigorous process of judging, we looked at how much was a reactive approach versus rolling up your sleeves and trying to think ahead.”

Tzvi Hirshaut, a student from SAR High School in the Bronx, N.Y., won Track A for his “ideas to focus on promoting the physical and virtual security of Jewish communities worldwide, presenting innovative and thorough solutions,” the challenge organizers told eJP. “His proposal stands out and has the potential to serve as the basis for multiple competitions.” 

“What stands out as optimistic was that the proportion of very good submissions was very high in the high school track, compared to the others,” Hershkovitz told eJP. “We see that [young] people are so engaged.” 

A team of MIT students were the Track B winners. Called Project Chazon (Hebrew for vision), the team includes Zack Duitz and Avi Balsam, who are computer science and mathematics students. “Their idea leverages the power of generative AI and related technologies to automatically post fact-based responses to hateful content on social media at scale,” according to the challenge organizers. “Their innovative approach enables wide-scale, machine-based action against antisemitism by proactively countering hateful arguments with fact-based content.” 

Track C went to The Crime & Punishment Team from Israel, which includes graduates of the Israeli Military Intelligence’s elite Unit 8200, data analysts, data scientists and language specialists. “Their idea is to leverage advanced technologies such as Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, including real-time detection algorithms, to combat hate and antisemitism online,” the challenge organizers said. “Their innovative approach empowers users to take legal and other actions against those who spread hateful narratives.” 

Notable entrants also included Tair Vazany, a Nova music festival survivor, who pitched the use of virtual reality technology to allow people from around the world to experience what hate looks like. Rafi Cappe, a student at Moriah College in Australia, had the idea to create a social platform designed to facilitate meaningful discussions on political views and societal issues within a respectful environment.

Each proposal was reviewed by four judges and an advisory committee, composed of entrepreneurs as well as experts on antisemitism, including Lotan and Hershkovitz; Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism; and Robert Williams, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation. (Both the ADL and USC Shoah Foundation, in addition to UJA-Federation of New York, are partners of the Adir Challenge). 

The organizers are still raising funds towards the $1 million winner’s prize. “The money that’s needed isn’t just about the $1 million,” Lotan said. “In many ways we’re a nonprofit acting as a startup but the budget that is needed to carry this out, as it’s pretty much self-funded, that’s what we’re continuing to raise for as soon as this stage ends.” The foundation, which has received several sponsorships, including a grant from UJA, plans carry out a number of challenges such as this one, all aimed at innovation to combat antisemitism and hate.

Lotan and Hershkovitz said the idea was inspired by XPrize, which was launched in the 1990s with a $10 million award to develop the first spaceship by the private sector. Today, the XPrize nonprofit has expanded to include various competitions focused on anti-aging, environmental danger, medical automated diagnosis, literacy and other issues, with the mission to create “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition.

In 2021, Elon Musk funded a $100 million XPrize four-year competition for technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (the competition is slated to end on Earth Day 2025). A recent report by the XPrize Foundation found that the impact of the competitions has included significant technical advancements and increased financial investments in solutions to world challenges.

What drives Lotan most, however, is the memory of her oldest nephew, Addir Mesika, who was killed alongside his two closest friends, Ilay Nachman and Matan Eckstein, while trying to escape the Nova music festival. “To say that he was the best human being you’d ever meet is an understatement,” Lotan said. “He cared very much about his community [and] his friends.” 

Having recently finished the army, “He was thinking about what to study, engineering or sustainability, anything that would create impact,” Lotan said, adding that Mesika was “fascinated by the role of technology and how cool it was, that in a 23-year-old’s voice ‘you can create so much impact with it.’’

“He wanted to solve big problems using technology. That was a lot of the personal conversations between me and him.”