Meet the Congregant: Jacob Smilg

IMG_0878By Janie Lam Meyers

Chances are, you’ve already heard of 13-year-old Jacob Smilg and his amazing invention. During the past few months, Jacob’s been interviewed by the major Cincinnati news stations. Fantastic news articles have been printed in publications and on the internet. His fabulous story continues to travel to the far corners of the planet to places like England, Russia, Norway, and others. So – just in case you’ve been hibernating in a sound-proof cave somewhere and missed the Big Story – we’re happy to bring you up to speed.

Jacob Smilg is an eighth grade student at Sycamore Junior High School. He is the son of Larry and Jennifer Smilg, youngest brother of Ethan and Noah, and became a Bar Mitzvah at Rockdale Temple this summer. He spends part of his summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI). Jacob doesn’t really care for sports but he enjoys many hobbies: creating, programming, playing video games, computers, and reading. In school, his favorite classes are science and math, and he also admits to being pretty good at language arts. Jacob is a regular kid, but – Jacob is also an accomplished inventor.

Jacob comes from a long line of family members whose DNA is heavily weighted in the math, science, aerospace, & engineering fields. His father and grandfathers all chose careers in these fields and most of them graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dad, Larry, used to work for NASA and was an actual rocket scientist, now concentrating on engineering. And older brother, Ethan, just completed his first semester at Case Western Reserve University where he’s studying to be an engineer. When I asked Jacob what he wants to be when he grows up, without a moment’s hesitation he replied: “Some kind of engineer, probably in the software or electrical fields.”

In 2010, Jacob met Ethan Kadish (son of Alexia and Scott Kadish) when mutual friends introduced them. The Kadishs are members of Rockdale as well, and the families quickly became friends. In the summer of 2013, Ethan Kadish went to GUCI during the first session while Jacob attended the 2nd session. Sadly, in a freak accident of nature, Ethan Kadish was struck by lightning at the camp, and nearly died. He and his family have bravely struggled with the tragic consequences of this accident. Many people in our community and elsewhere have stepped forward to help the Kadish family, and the Smilgs are at the forefront of this effort.

At the end of October 2015, Ethan Kadish had a big breakthrough on his neurological road to recovery. He learned how to blink his eyes to “say,” “yes,” or “no.” Jacob saw a video of Ethan doing this and began to think of ways in which he might create a machine to further Ethan’s ability to communicate. He came up with an idea and worked on it for about a month. By Thanksgiving he was ready to have his friend test his invention.

Jacob brought the machine to the Kadish home and patiently explained to Ethan how it worked. “It was surprisingly easy to get him to use it – he understood what to do right away,” explained Jacob. The machine is a “yes/no communication device,” said Jacob, who claims it’s not perfected yet, but he’s continuing the work to improve it.

When Jacob showed me the machine, I was surprised how primitive the device was, yet at the same time, intrigued by the electrical and computer components he’d integrated to make it all work. There are simple wooden paddles for Ethan to hold in each hand that when pressed, correspond to either the word “yes” (in green lights) or the word “no” (in red lights.)” “I’ll probably incorporate a gyro detector so Ethan can just look at it and it will sense his eye movement, like a cell phone knows the direction that it’s pointing. And this is the power source,” Jacob continued, as he held up a gadget that looked to me, much like a cell phone. “It’s a charger that holds power for a long time, and transmits it to other apparatuses.”

Jacob’s mom, Jen, noticed Jacob’s unique abilities when he was little. “At age four,” she said, “he’d take things apart, figure out how they worked, then put them back together.”

Inspired by Jacob & Ethan , a former GUCI counselor through a program called “Go Fund Me” has helped fundraise to provide Jacob with a 3-D printer to help speed the creation process.

Jacob proudly invited me down to the basement to demonstrate how the machine works. After showing me the equipment, Jacob inserted a thick plastic thread into the 3-D printer and then programmed the computer to create a picture of what he wanted to turn the plastic thread into. As he proceeded with each step in the process, he patiently explained how every action worked and in what way one move affected the next.

I’d heard much about 3-D printers, but had never seen one before. The plastic threads were being heated to an extremely high temperature and melted. Then the melted plastic was delivered through a needle-like device to a platform where miraculously, it was layered over and over into a Lego-like block. Jacob told me he was creating a new game using the very blocks I was watching him form, where opposing persons could play against one another. He also showed me a larger green plastic box type object he’d already built and intended for use with Ethan. I’m not sure I truly understand how the game will work, – but I have no doubt – Jacob does!

We never know where our lives will take us, nor the path that will get us there. But for all of us at Rockdale, it will be an honor to watch Jacob grow up and see where his unique abilities and commitment to mitzvot take him. Stay tuned!