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High-tech Chanukah at Shalhevet

It was Sunday morning — just hours before the first night of Chanukah began on Dec. 6 — and Adrian Krag stood at the front of a Shalhevet High School classroom that was filled with inquisitive students.
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December 9, 2015

It was Sunday morning — just hours before the first night of Chanukah began on Dec. 6 — and Adrian Krag stood at the front of a Shalhevet High School classroom that was filled with inquisitive students. A skyscraper of a man with silvery hair tied neatly in a ponytail, the educator bellowed over a steady chorus of electronic hums and buzzes. 

“It’s just like your cellphones,” he said. “The protons in your batteries that power your smartphones and allow you to make calls and send texts work the exact same way.” 

Heads stayed down. Eyes glazed over. Students were too enthralled with their own creations to pay much attention to Krag’s final shpiel. After all, motorized spinning dreidels — all made by a 3-D printer — dizzied their way around the classroom’s countertops before them. More than 30 prospective Shalhevet students went home with dreidels, courtesy of the nonprofit Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE), that surely made them the envy of their friends. 

CIJE, founded in 2001 and dedicated to enhancing and enriching Jewish education, operates in more than 150 schools in 13 states across the country, including Shalhevet. Its mission is to bring state-of-the-art science education to more than 30,000 Jewish-American high school students. Other local schools participating in CIJE’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs include YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School, Harkham GAON Academy, de Toledo High School in West Hills, Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. 

Krag, an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur in the fields of aerospace and biomedical and electronic engineering in his own right, serves as CIJE’s director of STEM West Coast programming. His day-to-day role entails mentoring teachers, helping them implement the fixed curriculum in his organization’s partner schools. On Sunday, though, students were treated to Krag’s hands-on involvement as he led proceedings. 

“I enjoy teaching and I enjoy working with kids,” Krag said. “I used to teach at the University of Colorado. At the university, you teach the course. In high school, you teach the kids. That’s why I’m here.”

Under Krag’s guidance, students were given pre-made dreidels created using a 3-D printer, a contraption resembling something Q might present to James Bond. A sleek black cube complete with buttons flashing bright red and green, the futuristic gadget was on display for students to check out. Students then connected the circuits of their batteries that powered the motors of their dreidels with the help of Krag and a team of volunteers. 

Nicholas Fields and Zach Helfond, a pair of eighth-graders from Maimonides Academy, appreciated the fresh approach. 

“It’s a break from studying and taking tests. It’s a different way to learn something,” Helfond said. “It gives us a chance to explore.” 

“Plus, it’s just a lot of fun and in the spirit of Chanukah,” Fields said.

Amy Sirkis, a first-year chemistry and physics teacher at Shalhevet, was on hand to help facilitate. Sirkis knows from experience that lesson plans straying from convention are a teacher’s best bet to pique the interest of students. 

“Students are able to be creative,” Sirkis said. “They’re not just working toward a test. They really get to explore. They’re actually incredible problem-solvers. Often, you give them a task and just let them figure it out.” 

Some current Shalhevet students sacrificed a precious Sunday off, volunteering to assist the likes of Fields and Helfond with their dreidels. Their presence enabled prospective students to get a feel for what a future at Shalhevet might look like. Jamie Berman, a Shalhevet ninth-grader, and Hila Machmali, a Shalhevet 10th-grader, made it clear that electronic dreidels are just the beginning of what students can do. 

“Right now, I’m working on a flashlight that turns on automatically in the dark,” Berman said. “I thought of it after a power outage. I couldn’t find my flashlight and I thought it’d be cool if it would’ve turned on automatically.” 

Machmali has already mapped out and executed a project with exciting real-world applications and presented it at an engineering conference Shalhevet’s CIJE students attend each spring. 

“My team and I started by asking, ‘What if a nanny or parent is at home and can’t hear a baby crying?’ We made a teddy bear that detects high sound frequencies and can actually send a text to the parent telling them the baby is crying,” Machmali said.  

According to Natalie Weiss, Shalhevet’s director of admissions, who watched from the sidelines,, students such as Berman and Machmali are well on their way to being the success stories that CIJE works so hard to produce. 

“STEM is our children’s future,” Weiss said. “We know our students will be part of the solutions facing our global society. CIJE is a part of that endeavor.”

Krag added: “Sometimes the Jewish education portion in our schools takes away from all the secular subjects. Our kids are going to be competing with kids who basically had an extra three hours a day to study science, math and engineering. It can put them at a disadvantage. What we do at CIJE is try to take the time that we have and use it effectively.”

While speaking with the Journal, Krag was approached by a student who thanked him profusely for the dreidel he just helped her make, telling him the creation would be a part of her holiday festivities later that night. As she left, Krag was overcome with emotion. 

“That, right there, is why I do this. It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s just wonderful.” 

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