Have laptop, will prosper

Last Shabbat at Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe stood at the bimah to deliver his sermon — and whipped out his laptop.

I wasn’t there, but I was told not a few of the congregants at the mainstream Conservative shul balked — what was coming out next, his cell phone? Observant Jews don’t use such devices on the holy day of rest; he might as well have whipped out a broiled lobster and drawn butter.

“I expect this to be the first and last time I open a laptop on the bimah,” Wolpe said.

Wolpe didn’t actually start checking e-mail and, say, JewishJournal.com. He brought out the small, colorful laptop to push his congregants to participate in a remarkable, world-changing program called One Laptop per Child.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is the name of a USA-based nonprofit launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte and faculty members of the MIT Media Lab, with the goal of bringing computer technology to the children of the developing world.

Over the past two years it has created a brilliant piece of machinery, the XO-1, a water-, dust- and shock-proof, web-ready hi-tech wonder that uses open source (i.e., free) software and miniscule amounts of energy, energy that can be suplied via a hand crank or solar panel. One Sinai congregant suggested the XO-1 is the ideal computer to have around for when “The Big One” strikes.

The original idea was to create a “$100 laptop” that governments in developing countries could buy en masse and distribute to their children. “It’s an education project, not a laptop project,” Negroponte has said. Some 15 countries have committed to the program, including Rwanda and Libya — the latter signed an agreement to supply laptops to all of its 1.2 million schoolchildren, according to The New York Times.

But even committed countries wouldn’t buy a quarter million XO-1s until the product was proven, and the price couldn’t drop to $100 without selling more laptops. So Negroponte and company devised Plan B: the Give One, Get One program. For a limited time — until Nov. 26 — they are offering American and Canadian consumers the opportunity to purchase an XO for a child in your life, while donating another to a child in a developing nation. The cost with shipping works out to about $400, which includes a year of free T-mobile wireless Internet access. Because one of those laptops is headed to Cambodia or Chad, $200 of the price is a tax-deductible contribution.

Earlier this month, Wolpe met Negroponte at the home of Internet entrepreneur Dan Adler, a local project booster, and the rabbi was sold. Shortly thereafter he sent an e-mail out to the thousands of people on the Sinai list.

“This program,” he wrote, “which involves all faiths and nations, is an attempt to bring computers, curricula, and education to the very poorest parts of the world. By purchasing one remarkably inexpensive — yet remarkably effective — computer, you will enable a poor child to receive a computer as well…. Let us join people from all over the world seeking to help those who crave knowledge, information, and connection. These computers work without electricity and are specially designed to enable the poorest children to benefit. The Talmud teaches that Jews are rachamim b’nei rachamim — merciful people and the children of merciful people. Please show your mercy to children all over the world.”

But it’s not just about mercy; what makes this project resonate from a Jewish pulpit is how it provides children not with sustenance, but with the tools to sustain and enrich themselves.

Last month The Templeton Foundation asked a range of experts a simple question, “Can money solve Africa’s development problem?”

The experts agreed that Africa’s poverty comes not from lack of money or resources, but from the inability to unleash the best entrepreneurial spirit of the African people.

“The problem in Africa has never been lack of money, but rather the inability to exploit the African mind,” wrote James Shikwati, CEO of The African Executive business magazine.

Critics of Negroponte have pointed out that children in poor countries need clean water and malaria pills, not laptops. Building libraries is more cost effective than supplying machines, they say. Of course, none of these needs are mutually exclusive. But even so, there is something noble and brilliant in Negroponte’s idea that giving children the tools of a 21st century education will enable their societies to leap, rather than crawl, forward. In the computer age, one entrepreneur with a laptop can change the world — ask the 23-year-old who created Facebook — but first that brilliant kid needs a laptop.

There are a lot of things I could have written about this week — a certain conclave in Annapolis comes to mind — but here before us is this concrete chance to demonstrate our gratitude for all we have by sharing our gifts with others, and we have just until Nov. 26 to do it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Visit the Give One, Get One program @ http://www.laptopgiving.org/en/index.php