Special Olympics swimming champ Mati Oren lighting an Independence Day torch at Kibbutz Ginegar on April 23, 2015.
Behind the scenes at ISRAEL21c

ISRAEL21c helps Special Olympics team meet goal

Special Olympics swimming champ Mati Oren lighting an Independence Day torch at Kibbutz Ginegar on April 23, 2015.

Special Olympics swimming champ Mati Oren lighting an Independence Day torch at Kibbutz Ginegar on April 23, 2015.

Families of 40 Israeli Special Olympians hoping to represent the country at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles weren’t sure they would meet their funding quota of NIS 300,000 to send the athletes to the competition, but an ISRAEL21c article about one special swimmer, Mati Oren, helped assure that the whole team will go.

Vicki Oren, a resident of Kibbutz Ginegar near Nazareth, tells ISRAEL21c that the January 28 story was reprinted in several places, including the St. Louis Jewish Light. Oren’s parents live in St. Louis and received calls from friends and acquaintances after the article appeared.

“I know that several donations came in after that,” says Oren. “I had sent an email with a link to the article to lots of people all over the world, and I am sure it contributed greatly to the success of our campaign. But the Jewish Light [reprint] got the attention of some people I had specifically been trying to reach in St. Louis.”

In addition, she says, ISRAEL21c’s coverage helped inform the English-speaking public in Israel and worldwide about Israel’s Special Olympics program.

“I got really positive comments from people in Israel who became aware of this through your website,” she says.

“We have very little material in English, and it was so good to have something well-written to get awareness out to the public, whether they contribute or not. It also helps us reach more families of special-needs children who might want to participate. So the article served a few purposes.”

Mati Oren, 32, is Israel’s most medaled Special Olympics athlete since the country’s 1987 entry in the worldwide competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities. He made history in 2003, when he took home four gold medals from the Dublin Summer Games and achieved a Special Olympics world record in the 100-meter individual medley.

It will cost nearly NIS 1 million to get the team and support staff to Los Angeles; the families were asked to raise one-third of that cost. “We had three or four months of not knowing if we’d make the quota,” says Oren.

More than 100 family members of Israeli Special Olympics athletes are accompanying the team at their own expense.

Israeli McDonald’s restaurants will launch a wristband campaign in May that is expected to raise perhaps another NIS 100,000.

Oren says individual donations are still welcome. “The team can use every dollar it gets.”

For information on how to donate to the Special Olympics 2015 World Games delegation, click here.

Michael Matias believes every teen should run a startup.

‘Every teen should run a startup’

Michael Matias believes every teen should run a startup.

If you could create a symbolic portrait of Israel’s youthful startup culture, it might look a lot like Michael Matias of Tel Aviv.

At 19, Matias has already made an international splash as an entrepreneur and tech visionary.

After graduating as valedictorian of the class of 2014 at the Walworth-Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda – where he captained the robotics, varsity tennis and Model UN teams – Matias took off for Silicon Valley to intern for eight months in Google’s Irrational Labs with Dan Ariely, a noted Israeli-American behavioral economist.

During his internship, Matias founded Hacking Generation Y, a 36-hour coding competition model to promote entrepreneurship among high school students. The first one was organized in just two months.

“Most hackathons are targeted to college and post-college students, almost completely disregarding the younger generation,” Matias tells ISRAEL21c in an interview two days before beginning his four-and-a-half-year service in an elite IDF technological unit.

“I organized HackGenY to bring together top high school minds from across the world. We got 1,200 applications and partnered with Google, MIT Launch and Tango, along with 30 other sponsors. We had judges and mentors from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Intel, VCs Andreessen Horowitz and Upwest Labs, and several angel investors. And we were able to get sponsors to cover participants’ air fare.”

Matias addressing 450 teenage coders at HackGenY Silicon Valley.

Matias addressing 450 teenage coders at HackGenY Silicon Valley.

The 450 kids chosen to participate in HackGenY Silicon Valley (from 10 countries including Israel) created prototypes such as an Oculus Rift headset integrated into a wheelchair and a reverse-engineered Tinder dating app used 4,000 times during the hackathon. Several days later, Matias and partner Yonatan Oren, a California teen, were asked by students in Jamaica to organize a hackathon there. That event took place in April, drawing 150 participants.

“In light of that success, we’re bringing HackGenY to Israel in June, and to make it more special we’ll do HackGenY India in Bangalore that will be livestreamed at the same time,” says Matias, who is working with fellow Israeli whiz kids Iddo Gino and Mickey Haslavsky. Haslavsky is also serving in the military now.

“Every entrepreneur has challenges, and ours will be organizing the hackathon while in the army,” says Matias.

He gave a TEDx talk in Palo Alto, “Why Every Teen Should Run a Startup,” describing his experience co-founding AnyMeal– a platform to help people discover restaurants and dishes suitable for their diets and eating preferences – with a fellow participant from a 2013 MIT Entrepreneurship Summer Program in Boston. He has done motivational speaking in Tel Aviv, New York and Munich.

There’s no question that this young go-getter’s family background helped propel his unusual achievements.

“Every person in my family is driven and accomplished,” he relates.

His mother, Shavit Matias, was deputy attorney general of Israel between 2004 and 2013. His father, Yossi Matias, is vice president-engineering at Google,managing director of Google’s R&D Center in Israel and founder of Google Campus Tel Aviv.

His musician brother, Or, graduated from New York’s Juilliard School and is working on Broadway. His sister, Lian, runs a Tel Aviv wedding-planning startup called My Day.

“She just had baby and I see how she holds the baby in one arm and writes emails with the other,” says Matias. “We all work together and support each other. I believe that your environment is what makes you what you are. Surround yourself with motivated people who care about you, and you’ll succeed.”

Hacking should start in high school, says Michael Matias.

When he was in second grade, his family moved to California for three years while his parents took advantage of professional opportunities.

After the Matias family returned to Israel, Michael continued his American-style education by enrolling at the American International School. “This school was such an inspiration for me, and led to my innovative and adventurous mindset,” he says, adding that “99 percent of my drive is due to Israel and living in the startup nation.”

When he was in fifth grade, he went onstage at the 140 Characters Conference in Tel Aviv to talk about growing up with technology. As a teen, he presented twice at the 140 Characters Conference in New York.

In 2012, Matias participated in the Stanford Summer Program EPGY (Education Program for the Gifted Youth), followed the next summer by the MIT program. In 2013, also during his summer vacation, he worked with a team at Google Tel Aviv on a search function for students that computes geometric formulas with 3D modeling and guides the solution of mathematical equations.

What’s next for Matias?

“For the past year and a half, my motto has been ‘If you have a cool idea right now, follow it.’ Right now I’m excited about high-tech,” he says.“But I can tell you that one of my lifelong dreams is to build a horse ranch and become a math teacher. Whether I’ll do that at 25 or 40, who knows?”

For more information, click here.

Miley was subsisting in a trash heap before Eldad Hagar rescued him. (Photo: David Miller Studios)

The dog rescuer

Miley was subsisting in a trash heap before Eldad Hagar rescued him. (Photo: David Miller Studios)

Miley was subsisting in a trash heap before Eldad Hagar rescued him. Photo by David Miller Studios

It all started with Fiona, a terrified, flea-infested blind poodle rescued from the parking lot of an auto-body shop in South Los Angeles in 2012.Fiona was not Eldad Hagar’s first filmed dog rescue – far from it – but the first one that went viral online, garnering 3.3 million views.

Hagar’s globally viral videos of his “extreme”animal rescues in the US have made his small nonprofit, Hope for Paws, among the most well-known of about 100 LA animal-rescue organizations. Individuals and other organizations call Hope for Paws to do rescues no one else will risk due to the danger of the situation or of the neighborhood.

Though Hagar operates a US charity, and speaks perfect Californian English, he was actually born and bred in Israel.

From 1981 to 1989, young Hagar and his family lived in the bucolic northern city of Zichron Ya’akov.

Eldad Hagar in Zichron Ya’akov, about six years old in 1981, introducing his dog to kittens left in a box at the family’s door.

Eldad Hagar in Zichron Ya’akov, about six years old in 1981, introducing his dog to kittens left in a box at the family’s door.

“We had a nice big house with lots of pets. We always took the leftovers from our plates outside to the stray cats. I would find injured tortoises, birds, kittens – actually, they somehow found me — and I took care of them,” Hagar tells ISRAEL21c. “Luckily I had a neighbor who was a veterinarian, and he was kind enough to guide me. That’s how I gained so much knowledge.”

Then the Hagars moved south to Holon and Eldad finished high school, studied computers and did his military service. Two years after his discharge, in 1998, he took off to see the United States.

Falling in love with LA, he stayed and found work in the computer field during the dot-com boom. He and his wife, Audrey, volunteered as foster parents for “the sickest, saddest” shelter dogs through an animal-rescue organization. Their book, Our Lives Have Gone to the Dogs, tells about more than 500 dogs they took in over eight years.

Hope for Paws

In 2008, they started Hope for Paws in order to take over responsibility for their foster dogs’ medical expenses. One day a friend told Hagar about a pregnant stray dog in gritty South Central LA. “That became my first street rescue,” says Hagar, who now has a volunteer staff of four.

Troy before and after Hagar rescued him. Photo by George Pence Photography

Troy just after Hagar rescued him and several weeks later. Photo by George Pence Photography

“I started doing more and more street rescues and I would tell my friends about them. One friend said that if she didn’t know me she wouldn’t believe the crazy stories I was telling. That’s when I started taking a camera with me, mainly to show my friends and my parents in Israel. The first videos had horrible camera work until I learned how to do everything with one hand.”

As he spoke with ISRAEL21c via Skype, three-legged Jordan happily scampered across his lap. Hagar and several helpers recently extricated Jordan from a canal where he was thrown after having his leg cut off. Just a month after Hagar posted the video, it had some 2.3 million views on YouTube and thousands of shares on Facebook.

Hagar not only shoots all the videos but also does his own editing, because only he knows how to identify the right footage to include. “No editor could ever capture the moments I can, when the dog looks at me in only the way I remember.”

Each video ends with an appeal for a $5 donation. “I have over a million followers but I never ask for a donation; the videos do,” Hagar says.

“Most rescue organizations, whether in Israel or LA, have adoption events where they get donations from community, and it’s hard to raise funds. But I am very blessed because I can reach people all over the world. I’ve gotten donations from Japan, Australia, South America. There’s only so much I can do as a small organization, but if I can inspire others to take action that’s the value.”

The videos also raise awareness and show people what they can do to help animals in distress.

That first viral video of Fiona resulted in a flood of emails. “One of the most amazing emails was from a man in South Korea who wrote that the video touched a nerve he didn’t know he had. And this is a country where it’s acceptable to have a dog for dinner,” Hagar points out. “That was incredible.”

Eldad the donkey

Eldad and Eldad at Pegasus donkey and horse refuge in Israel.

Eldad and Eldad at Pegasus donkey and horse refuge in Israel.

A few years ago, while visiting his family in Israel, Hagar was driving in the Negev and happened upon a donkey near the roadway. The beast’s front legs had been hobbled with a rope that cut deep into his flesh. Hagar gently led the beast to a hidden spot in case the abusive owner returned. Then he called Zvika Tamuz, head of Israel’s Pegasus Society.

“On my previous visit a year before, I had met with Zvika at his donkey and horse refuge and gave him a donation. When I found the donkey, I Googled Zvika’s number and he dropped everything and drove two hours to the desert to help me.”

Tamuz brought the donkey to Pegasus, and named him Eldad.

On his annual visits to Israel, Hagar never takes a break from his calling. “There’s always an animal that needs help and I couldn’t  just say, ‘Oh I’m on vacation.’ I can’t just assume someone else will help because someone else may not.”

Like all Mediterranean countries, Israel has lots of stray cats, and Hagar works with existing groups to trap, neuter and release hundreds of feral cats.

Last time he was in Israel he did a rescue with Yuval Mendelovich, who has been working for 14 years to save pit bulls and mastiffs exploited for dog fights in Arab villages.

Rescue work is full of hazards. Hagar has been bitten by frightened canines and threatened by drug dealers and gangs in the sketchy neighborhoods he and his staff enter to save suffering creatures.

Yet Hagar, named to the “mensch list” of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles last year and interviewed often on TV, considers his biggest challenge not his safety but finding homes for every rescued dog. He insists that they not go to a kennel after discharge from the vet. “Dogs heal so much better in a calm home environment, physically and mentally.”

“I can’t change the world, but I can change the world of that animal,” says Hagar.

Hagar rescued Frida from the railroad tracks.

Hagar rescued Frida from the railroad tracks.

For more information, click here.

Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via Shutterstock.com

No glass ceilings for this female fin-tech exec

Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via Shutterstock.com

Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via Shutterstock.com

Barely past 30, Ruth Polachek has earned her place as one of Israel’s hottest high-tech honchos.

As head of Citi Accelerator Tel Aviv –where the top global bank nurtures Israeli financial-tech innovation — and chairing founder of the rapidly growing She Codes community of female Israeli software developers, this former Wall Street trader and serial entrepreneur personifies the potential for women in a predominantly male field.

“My goal is to have females make up 50 percent of developers in a decade,” Polachek tells ISRAEL21c.“It’s really possible, and I try to convey that to the participants of She Codes and also to the startups in the Citi Accelerator. There are no brick walls; it is just a matter of persistence.”

One could say that “persistence” is her middle name.

Before joining Citi Accelerator in January 2015, Polachek founded several startups in partnership with notable Israeli tech visionaries Dov Moran and Saar Wilf. If a venture wasn’t ultimately successful, she moved on and applied lessons learned.

 Ruth Polachek: “There are no brick walls.”

Ruth Polachek: “There are no brick walls.”

 Born in 1983 and raised in Rehovot, Polachek explains that her parents are American immigrants involved in the technology field. “They taught me to program when I was six,” she relates.

While doing a year of National Service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem following high school, Polacheck managed the national youth group Noar Chovev Tanach (Youth who Love the Bible).

Several months before she turned 19, she went to New York and earned her trader’s license, scoring her first job as a proprietary equities trader for Wall Street firm Worldco. The youngest and only female member of her group, she rose to the number-three spot but decided to leave after two years to go to college.

Instead of following in her mom’s footsteps to Princeton University, she came back to Israel to earn her degree in economics and philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I’ve lived in the US three times, and although I love it there, after a year and a half I always got a strong feeling to go home,” she explains.

Though she had been interested in the medical field, Polachek realized she craved a larger focus. “I like doing things in scale, and I like to see innovation,” she says.

eClub founder

Polachek did her senior year at Brown University’s entrepreneurship program as part of an exchange program for honor students. Having met some Lehman Brothers associates in Israel, she was hired by the global financial services firm while still at Brown.

“At Lehman I worked on large mergers and acquisitions, and IPOs of technology companies. That connected a lot of the dots for me from economic theory all the way through to trading and understanding how large corporations operate,” says Polachek. “After a year, I got jealous of the entrepreneurs and executives because they were actually building the economy, so I decided to take the seeds of entrepreneurship and do something with them.”

Turning down an offer to continue working for Lehman Brothers, Polachek spent the next eight years building companies. At Brown, she had seen the early growth of Facebook and determined that the digital space was the next big thing. “My first company had several products in web and mobile. Then I moved to the US again [temporarily] to be close to the market.”

In 2008, the year she was named one of Israel’s 40 most promising people under 40 by The Marker magazine, Polacheck founded the Hebrew University Alumni and Student Entrepreneur Club (eClub) and ran it for six years.

In late 2013, she established She Codes. It has 11 branches, the most recent of which opened on March 31 at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Every week about 200 women participate, and overall the group boasts more than 6,000 members.

“We have branches at all the universities and at Google Campus TLV and many other places. We have 15 Facebook groups and 10 meetup groups,” Polachek says. “Once a week, each branch has activities to enable women to develop their skills and build their own startups in a supportive environment. We feature guest lectures by inspirational role models. Companies call us all the time looking for women to hire. I’m surprised by the vast response we’re getting.”

She says that many of the members tell her they are the only women in their company. “Being alone is really hard,” she says. “It can be uncomfortable even if only subconsciously.”

As for herself, she had no qualms accepting Citi’s offer to preside over Citi Accelerator Tel Aviv, which was founded in July 2013 as part of the Citi Innovation Lab TLV, one of Citi’s global network of innovation centers. (Her predecessor, Ornit Shinar, also is female.) Polachek says the job merges her interests in entrepreneurship, innovation and fin-tech.

“I wanted to do fin-tech because the growth now is really incredible and I realized that fin-tech should come from, and together with, the banks,” she explains. “Citi is at the forefront of this. The accelerator enables entrepreneurs to work with banks and understand their needs. Citi understood that taking the best of the best minds enhances our entrepreneurship and growth as well as theirs.”

Like many successful Israelis, she encourages startups not to fear failure.

“Failure is an extremely important part of entrepreneurship. In some way it is one of the building blocks of it,” she says.“Entrepreneurs that go through failure and have the perseverance and endurance to cope with it can handle anything that is thrown at them. Not trying and not working hard and giving up is failure. Working hard and achieving things that may be considered by some as failure should be regarded as a badge of honor.”

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website "Master Classes with the Stars."

Acclaimed pianist relocates to Israel

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website "Master Classes with the Stars."

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website “Master Classes with the Stars.”

World-class pianist Oxana Yablonskaya fulfilled a four-decade dream when she officially became Israeli in November, just before her 76th birthday.

“I always wanted to be in Israel, and I am very proud and happy to be a citizen,” says Yablonskaya, who has been teaching, playing and recording piano music since the age of 17. She has earned an international reputation for “her powerhouse virtuosity, exquisite sensitivity, and deep emotional drive,” as the Yamaha Artists website describes her.

Yablonskaya recalls crying tears of joy when she saw the “Welcome Home” sign at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport as she and her husband, piano-maker Alexander Volchonok, arrived on November 9. They followed eight months after her son, cellist and Grammy-nominated conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, made aliyah with his family.

Yablonskaya first requested to leave what was then the Soviet Union in 1975. As a result, she lost her job as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

Through the intervention of 45 American celebrities and politicians — including conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and the actress Katharine Hepburn – she finally won permission to go to Israel in 1977.

By that time, however, she had despaired of attaining her goal and had made arrangements to follow her sister to New York. She burst onto the cultural scene with appearances at Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, and went on to teach at Juilliard School of Music in New York for 25 years, as well as giving concerts and master classes in about 40 countries.

Yablanskaya will continue teaching and performing in Israel.

Yablanskaya will continue teaching and performing in Israel.

Throughout those nearly 40 years,Yablonskaya visited Israel every year to participate in music festivals, concerts and classes.

“But now, with anti-Semitism reaching a level I have never seen before in my life, we decided we want to do everything we can for Israel,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Her debut performance as an Israeli, earlier this year, was with her daughter-in-law, violinist Janna Gandelman, under the baton of her son at the helm of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The three musicians are appearing together several times this April in South Africa with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

Since making aliyah, Yablonskaya has participated in juried piano competitions in Rio de Janeiro, Norway and China; and appeared in music festivals in Spain and South Africa. Next she’ll perform in Kiev.

Dmitry Yablonsky – Yablonskaya’s son with her first husband, Russian oboist Albert Zaionz – also organizes the annual Gabala International Music Festival and the Wandering Stars Festival that travels from country to country.

Welcome home

Before settling down in Israel permanently, both families are temporarily based in Spain while juggling a full calendar of concerts, teaching and judging. Yablonskaya and Volchonok are still in the process of scouting out a forever home in Israel. During frequent visits, they stay in Tel Aviv but could imagine living anywhere in the country.

“I just need to have a garden for our four dogs and a large enough living room for all our pianos,” she tells ISRAEL21c on a Skype call from South Africa. “Meanwhile we’re in Israel as much as possible. I gave master classes in the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where I also had a solo recital.”

Her ambition is to continue giving master classes in her new homeland, not only to natives but also to students who come to her from countries including Japan and Portugal. “I give classes all over the world anyway, so now I want to do it in Israel,” she says.“I feel it is my duty. My son and husband and I all want very much to be active in Israel.”

Yablonskaya relates that she first visited Israel in 1979.

“My aunt helped build Kibbutz Afikim near the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] and she lived there all her life, so the first time I came to Israel she met me and we drove there. I didn’t go to any of the famous places. I played concerts on the kibbutz. Back then, there was maybe one orange tree, and now there is a forest full of flowers and trees and bushes. It’s really incredible — like a big garden.”

Over the years, Yablonskaya and Volchonok have purchased many trees to plant in Israel through Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, in memory of loved ones. “Now I hope to buy 100 trees to celebrate that we are Israeli,” she says.

The grandmother of two and great-grandmother of two says she is “full of energy” as she begins this new Israeli chapter of her life, and has only one unfulfilled wish: “I hope there will be peace.”

For more information, click here.