JHacks introduces hackathon to accommodate religiously observant students

By James Whitlow
For Unwind magazine

For nearly 22 consecutive hours, 150 students from 22 different schools developed software to solve a variety of technological problems the weekend of Feb. 12 as part of the JHacks “hackathon.”

JHacks, a Jewish computer science group at the University of Maryland, held the event at Maryland Hillel on Saturday, Feb. 13 from 8:30 p.m. to Sunday, Feb. 14 at 4 p.m.

Despite the event’s name, no actual hacking took place at the event, said Jeremy Felder, junior computer engineering major and co-director of the event.

Teams of students from this university, Cornell University, Columbia University and other schools developed any legal apps or programs they deemed useful and submitted their creations to a panel of university alumni and a Facebook representative for evaluation, Felder said.

A team of UMD students placed first with an app that uses data to determine “the best airline to book tickets from based on the most pleasant flight experience available,” Akiva Futter, a senior computer science major and  president of JHacks, wrote in an email.

The JHacks hackathon was one of the shorter, smaller hackathons hosted at this university, Felder said.

“Most of them are about 48 or 36 hours,” Felder said. “A lot of people just bring a sleeping bag and sleep by their chairs.”

JHacks created the hackathon to give religious students an opportunity to participate in an event that normally falls on Shabbat.

Some students were unable to take part in past hackathons like Bitcamp or Technica because of religious observances on Saturdays, so JHacks decided to host its own in order to include students with religious obligations, Felder said.

Although the event was scheduled to include religious students, not all who participated were students or particularly religious.

“Essentially, it’s for anybody who is into computer science,” Felder said.

Maryland Hillel and a number of tech companies, including Wal-Mart Technology and Cypher Tech Solutions sponsored the event. Sponsors routinely hire students from hackathons as interns, and those opportunities sometimes blossom into full-time employment,  Felder said.

The sponsors donated money and food to the event. And in return, they were allowed to bring their recruiting materials, he added.

Wal-Mart donated 65 pizzas to the hackathon.

“[Participants] stayed up all night,” Futter said. “People gotta eat.”

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