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Techies Host Shabbat-Friendly Hackathonukah

Techies Host Shabbat-Friendly Hackathonukah

Frustrated by the lack of tech-competitions available to Orthodox Jews, two brothers create a codefest inspired by the Festival of Lights.

Hannah Dreyfus is a former staff writer at the New York Jewish Week.

Oren Kanner, 28, a robotics doctoral student at Yale University, and his brother Donny, 23, a software engineer, never competed in “hackathons” because the computer programming competitions usually took place on Saturdays.

But this Chanukah, compete they will. Frustrated by the lack of tech-competitions available to Orthodox Jews, the two brothers created a codefest of their own: Hackathonukah, a technology competition inspired by the Festival of Lights. The 25-hour competition, held in Lower Manhattan, will begin on Saturday night, Dec. 13 and end on Sunday evening.

“The challenge is to come up with cool ways to control light, both functionally and aesthetically,” said Oren Kanner, speaking on behalf of both brothers. The Kanner brothers are third-generation engineers who grew up in Paramus, N.J. They attended Orthodox day schools through 12th grade and today consider themselves Modern Orthodox.

Hackathons, which began gaining popularity in the early 2000s, are events in which computer programmers, software developers and graphic designers collaborate on software projects. They’re opportunities for programmers and software engineers to push the bounds of their creativity outside the workplace, he said.

Though the term “hack” may conjure up stolen passwords and identity theft to most people, in the tech world, the term means to “create or innovate new technology,” Kanner said. It is increasingly used outside of the tech world as well: “Hacking a recipe” might mean swapping out ingredients to make it dairy-free.

The response to Hackathonukah exceeded all expectations. Within days of publicizing the competition, the maximum number of attendees —76 — signed up. Dozens of hopeful participants have been placed on the waiting list for the event.

“We never could have anticipated how many people would embrace this idea,” said Kanner, who clarified that there are many non-Jewish participants as well. “This is an all-inclusive event.”

A host of tech companies are sponsoring the event. The hardware will be provided by several lighting companies, including Smart Things, a company that allows you to remotely control lights and electronic devices using a smart phone, and LIFX, which produces Wi-Fi enabled, multi-color LED light bulbs that can be controlled remotely. The New York Code and Design Academy agreed to provide the venue. First and second place winners will be given large packages of hardware for additional hacking on their own time.

Participants will compete in teams of four. For any beginners who want attend, crash courses on the basics of programming and hardware hacking will be available said Kanner, though space is limited.

“We wanted to make sure the event also had an educational component for those interested in learning the trade,” he said.

There will also be a “crash space” for those who need to rest. “We’re definitely expecting some teams to pull all-nighters,” said Kanner. “Programmers and coders know what it means to work around the clock.”

Kosher meals and snacks will be provided for participants, and, of course, Chanukah candle lighting (in the old-fashioned sense) will be available to all.

“So many creative things can be done with light,” said Kanner, explaining that he and his brother kept the guidelines for the competition to a minimum in order to enhance ingenuity.

“We’re on the cutting edge of how to communicate with light in different ways,” he said. “What better way for techies to celebrate Chanukah?”

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