Rima Ali, 21, is a third-year student at the University of Haifa, with a double major in law and economics. She is an accomplished musician and has six students to whom she is teaching piano. She loves sports. Her English is flawless. She is most definitely a go-getter.
That may be why a Facebook ad for Moona — a cutting-edge technology innovation hub for Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians in the Karmiel-Misgav Region — caught the eye of this young Druze woman and set her on a path to Pittsburgh, where she visited last week along with two Arab teens whose lives have been enriched by the multicultural offerings of Moona.
Supported by seed money from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether program and located in Majd al-Krum in Israel’s Karmiel-Misgav Region, Moona offers extracurricular programs for junior high school through high school students, as well as technology training programs for young adults.
Moona provided Ali with a chance to put her creativity to practice through its “From Idea to Implementation” startup accelerator competition — supported by the U.S. Embassy Middle East Partnership Initiative — in which she placed second with her prototype of an entertainment table loaded with board and card games. First place was awarded jointly to Ahmed Saba, 17, and Khaled Abu Daud, 18, both Arab students from Majd al-Krum who built an automatic fishing boat.
The prize for the three winners: an educational tour of Pittsburgh from June 16 to 23, which included visits to the Uber Advanced Technologies Group, Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE robotics lab, the Carnegie Science Center and the AlphaLab Gear accelerator for hardware startups. Their visit was sponsored and planned by Classrooms without Borders, a Pittsburgh nonprofit educational organization founded in 2011 by Zipora Gur in association with the Federation.
The three Moona winners were provided with home hospitality by Federation Partnership2together volunteers, Gur said.
“The main goal of Moona is to develop coexistence between Arabs and Jews and to better the socioeconomic reality,” said Ali. “I saw an ad on Facebook that said if you have an idea, there was a place called Moona that was very innovative. I went to the first meeting and loved it. The people were accepting, welcoming and warm.”
Abu Daud has been involved with Moona since he was 15, when a representative came to his school to promote the program. At the time, Abu Daud had no interest in technology, but after seeing the facility and learning about its robotics competition, he was all in.
Saba also became involved in Moona three years ago.
“I wanted to learn about drones and robotics and Jewish culture,” he said. “I saw that everything I wanted to learn was inside Moona. I have participated in all the programs there — robotics, drones, 3-D printing.”
It was Saba’s idea to create an automatic fishing boat after hearing about the large number of fishermen who die each year while working off the coast of Alaska. He joined forces with Abu Daub to create the prototype that won the Moona competition.
Fishing is dangerous in Alaska, Abu Daub said, and the two boys realized that if the endeavor could become automated, “it could save a lot of lives.”
The visit to Pittsburgh helped to inspire the two first-place Moona winners, particularly their tours of AlphaLab Gear and Platypus, which works in low-cost water data collection, providing monitoring solutions using autonomous, co-operative robotic boats, Abu Daub said.
While here, Abu Daub, Saba and Ali also got a chance to ride in an Uber self-driving car, which Saba described as an “emotional” experience for the young tech wizzes.
For Ali, each place visited in Pittsburgh was an inspiration.
“The startups here are way advanced,” she said. “We are starters too. We want to get to that level where the people in Pittsburgh are.”
The Moona participants said they were grateful to the program not only for facilitating their drive to innovate but for enriching them as people overall.
“It helped with my self-esteem, to be exposed to technological advances we didn’t know existed,” said Ali. “I didn’t see myself there before, but now I do.”
The organization also furthered the participants’ understanding of Jews.
“For me, when I came to Moona, I didn’t socialize with Jews, but all the mentors are Jewish people,” Abu Daub said. “The first year I was really shy. But after that the mentors came to me. I started to get more and more involved. They were all very welcoming and warm. Now I am friends with all the mentors and the Jews there. It’s really different from what happens on the outside.”
Thanks to Moona, Saba “learned a lot of things about the culture of the Jews and their language,” he said. “And I learned a lot about drones. Now I can build a drone and fly it. Before Moona, I wanted to be a doctor. Now I want to be a mechanical engineer. I saw my dream in front of my eye at Moona.”
The three visitors were likewise impressed with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
“The people are welcoming here,” said Ali. “We broadened our horizons with these people. Here, we felt the Jewish community was our own family. And Tsipy [Gur] helped us a lot. If not for Tsipy and the host families, I wouldn’t be here.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.