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National service coding

Teaneck student makes aliyah, works on facial recognition in Jerusalem

Should it be Spanish or coding?

Avital Weisinger of Teaneck had to choose one elective in her sophomore year at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth. After much deliberation, Tali chose coding — and that turned out to have a significant impact on her life.

Today, living in Israel, the 20-year-old is fulfilling an unusual National Service assignment, using coding to craft creative solutions for specific civilian problems.

She now is building a face-recognition technology for babies at Jerusalem’s Alyn rehabilitation hospital; tiny patients who cannot make a sound when they cry because they have a trach tube in their throats. The system, fixed to the crib, recognizes the crying face and produces an artificial cry. That way, caregivers will be alerted and the babies will have the security of knowing that someone will respond when they are in distress.

“I love this project because it combines everything I’m fascinated in,” Ms. Weisinger said. “I really want to go into computer vision.”

Her first team project at Bruriah was a sensor to help colorblind people match their socks. “With that program I combined my love of science, art, and technology,” she said. “Computer science is really very creative and that appeals to the artist in me.”

In 11th grade, she and her fellow coding students created EYE.TO, an eye-tracking program to help locked-in syndrome patients “point” to a specific object. That summer, she was accepted to the seven-week 20-girl Girls Who Code boot camp hosted at Viacom in Times Square. The company provided her with a kosher lunch every day and gave each participant a Macbook Pro as a graduation gift.

The next summer, she was a teaching assistant in the Girls Who Code camp held at AIG. The training for this position took place on a Saturday, when Sabbath-observant Jews do not travel or actively use electric or electronic items. But that didn’t stop Ms. Weisinger.

“I went to the training but didn’t touch a computer and they were so cool about it,” she said. “They even let me stay in a hotel even though it was only for out-of-towners.”

That September she packed her bags for a gap year in Israel. She’s already been accepted to three different colleges in New York. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in Israel or come back, but my mother encouraged me to stay,” she said. “She knew that I loved Israel and saw my future here. I always had. When I was in America, I never felt it was my home. Israel is really where we’re supposed to be.”

So Ms. Weisinger decided to remain in Israel after her gap year to do National Service (Sherut Leumi), an alternative to military service that is favored by many religious female teenagers. An organization called Here Next Year helped her put plans in place and she officially made aliyah in August 2017.

Ms. Weisinger had a strong idea about what she did and didn’t want to do during her national service. “I saw a lot of Americans in Sherut Leumi were working in kindergartens or in clerical jobs and I didn’t want to do that,” she said.

She would have loved to find a position teaching kids to code, but that didn’t exist. Then she looked into training service dogs for the blind, but her Hebrew wasn’t fluent enough. So she accepted a National Service job at Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petach Tikvah, where she was supposed to work in a program that uses technology to entertain pediatric patients.

The program wasn’t all she hoped it would be, and she would have preferred to be in Jerusalem. But she stayed on until she heard about a more fitting opportunity from a friend she randomly encountered on the Jerusalem light rail one day.

“She’d heard about a program through Sherut Leumi that she thought I’d enjoy,” Ms. Weisinger said. “It was called Carmel 6000. I looked it up on Facebook later and I saw it was brand new. I sent an email, I went for an interview, and it spoke to me.”

This year, Ms. Weisinger and one other National Service volunteer have been busy piloting the program, laying the groundwork for next year, when 30 more volunteers are expected to come to learn how to code in order to tackle social-action projects. She plans to continue as a mentor next year.

“I’m helping them develop the curriculum and we’re both making projects to show what Carmel 6000 is capable of. I’m really part of a startup,” she said.

To communicate better with her Israeli roommates in Jerusalem, she is taking ulpan — intensive Hebrew language classes — three times a week. But Hebrew isn’t as critical during working hours, she said. “In the tech world, a lot of the vocabulary is English. In fact, one requirement for getting into Carmel 6000 is knowing English well, because all the websites and videos you learn from are in English.”

Ms. Weisinger’s blog, “Adventures of Avital,” posted on Facebook and Instagram, is quite candid about the obstacles and frustrations she has faced. One of her pet peeves is that while lone soldiers — those without family support in Israel — get financial and social perks from a variety of organizations, lone National Service volunteers make less money than lone soldiers and aren’t eligible for most of the benefits, although they do get free public transportation and an apartment shared with other National Service women.

“We don’t get enough support or respect,” Ms. Weisinger said. “Lone soldiers get vouchers for meals and supermarkets even though they get food on base. I don’t get any food at work and my salary is less.” But, she added, a new organization is advocating to improve conditions for lone National Service volunteers.

“I do talk about the hard parts but I also post about how much I love my job,” she said. “It’s so amazing to serve your country doing something you love.”

Two of her siblings also live in Israel. Her brother Yonatan is finishing his IDF service in March and plans to join the police force. Another older brother, Zev, lives in Jerusalem with his family and is the director of development for Friends of Nachal Charedi, the fundraising arm of the Orthodox men’s IDF battalion.

After her second year in Carmel 6000, Ms. Weisinger plans to do a preparatory year at Hebrew University to perfect her Hebrew and then pursue a degree in computer science or computer engineering.

Her mother, L’via, says that she and her husband, Charlie, are “super proud” of their older daughter. They also have a 10-year-old daughter, Batya, and another son, Akiva, who lives in Seattle with his wife. The elder Weisingers hope to make aliyah in the coming years.

“We feel it was a really good move for Tali socially, emotionally, and career-wise, because Israel is where it’s at with technology and she has tremendous opportunities there,” L’via Weisinger said. “Here she would be a little fish in a big sea, while in Israel she’s a big fish in a little sea and they’re making a push for getting women into high tech.”

Ms. Weisinger, a registered nurse, says she is pleased that her daughter is able to indulge her coding passion “not just to code games, but for things like biotech, which will really help people.”

She reports that she burst into happy tears when seeing a video her daughter sent showing the face-recognition program functioning perfectly. She knows how much sweat equity went into its design. The mother and daughter are in frequent contact via phone and WhatsApp, sharing both exasperating and triumphant moments.

In addition, Tali Weisinger and her father study Talmud together long distance. “I think it’s really important in Sherut Leumi … to carve out time in your day to do things that you love with the people you love,” she blogged.

“It’s been a trial by fire for her — finding the right position without connections, coming up with strategies to deal with problems in her apartment … all of that has made her stronger,” L’via Weisinger said. “We hope she inspires others.”

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