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Israeli program fills the gap for aspiring high-tech entrepreneurs

Big Idea gap year program participants listen to a lecture. Credit: Courtesy of Yael Sahar.
Big Idea gap year program participants listen to a lecture. Credit: Courtesy of Yael Sahar.

As a teenager, Asher Dale created a phone application called “Three Good Things – A Happiness Journal.” The app sends users daily reminders to write down three positive things that happened. Dale’s goal was to help rewire the brain to think about the upsides of daily life, and according to reviews he has done just that, with some even saying the app has changed their lives.

More than 11,000 downloads later, Asher, a native of Newton, Mass., is now in Israel as part of the Jewish state’s first gap year technology-training program, for young adults between high school and college.

As a part of the new Big Idea gap year program, Dale and other tech-savvy young adults can learn from and participate in Israel’s “start-up nation” high-tech culture. As a leader in innovation, Israel is considered an ideal training ground for young adults who seek international experience and professional training in the high-tech and cyber fields.

The program, backed by the Masa Israel educational grants, is appropriately located in Israel’s de facto cyber capital of Be’er Sheva. The program includes internships at top Be’er Sheva-based tech companies and start-ups like Wix and PayPal; a professional app-developing course; and entry into Be’er Sheva’s “Tech7,” an innovation community unique to the Negev tech ecosystem in southern Israel.

The CEO and founder of Big Idea, Dotan Tamir, was 23—just a few years older than many gap year students—when he organized Israel’s first international technology summer camp. Tamir believes Big Idea participants are making a significant investment in their future. Although Big Idea has operated informal technological education summer camps in the U.S. and Israel for more than a decade, administrators found a need for longer programs for young adults who wish to spend a meaningful amount of time in Israel.

Tamir maintains that the Big Idea approach of never saying “that can’t be done” is central to participants’ success, instilling confidence and an enhanced ability to think outside the box.

In return for the training they receive, participants are asked to create an application that will benefit the citizens of Be’er Sheva, in partnership with the Council for a Beautiful Israel, a nonprofit that promotes Israel’s quality of life. The current cohort is working on an app that connects volunteers with volunteering centers.

“The goal is that the Be’er Sheva community will benefit a [great deal],” said Yael Sahar, director of the gap year program. “The app will have an impact on thousands of citizens in the city.”

“The participants,” she added, “learn to be mensches (good people) here through volunteering and learning to innovate in the face of social challenges.”

Sahar also hopes that participants will return home with a stronger Jewish and Zionist identity and “become ambassadors for Israel on their college campuses and in their communities.” The program, she noted, is pluralistic, with a mix of 11 Orthodox and secular Jews hailing from the U.S., Colombia and South Africa.

For those who go back home, the high-tech training and professional certificate in mobile and web-app development they receive goes far in helping acquire well-paying positions in the high-tech industry.

Some participants choose to make aliyah after they finish their gap year. Big Idea—in collaboration with Garin Lotem, a pre-army course for lone soldiers (those without family members living in Israel)—helps them connect with the IDF, ensuring quality employment in computer and cyber units such as 8200, known for its use of code decryption to collect signal intelligence. Unit 8200 alumni often go on to found IT and cybersecurity companies.

“Israel’s start-ups are so successful because Israel’s security situation and lack of natural resources have required Israelis to think out of the box,” said Sahar. “Those are the things we want to give them—to be a part of this mindset and really get to know Israeli society.”

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