IAC Eitanim: Building Living Bridges Over A Growing Gap

Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the IAC, with Hackathon participants.
Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the IAC, with Hackathon participants.

By Shoham Nicolet

Trends outlined in reports like the Pew Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” have raised a series of urgent questions for the world of Jewish philanthropy.

At alarming rates, young people are disconnected from their Jewishness and especially from the Jewish State. We thought that Jewish Millennials presented a challenge for Jewish institutions. It is clear that Generation Z is even more challenging and complex.

How do we keep Jewish education relevant in the digital era, providing tangible and useful skills to young people that will not only strengthen their connection to the Jewish community, but also enable them to succeed as leaders and change makers in the broader American society?

There are no easy answers. However, at the Israeli-American Council (IAC), we are drawing on Project-Based Learning to develop new educational models that can effectively address many of the issues simultaneously.

What’s the secret sauce? We believe that young Israeli-Americans, especially those in the second generation, can be leveraged as living bridges between the next generation and the Jewish State.

At the IAC we recognized a clear challenge. The second and third generations of Israeli-Americans had extraordinarily high rates of assimilation. They were disconnected from their Jewish roots. Ensuring that the second and third generations of Israeli-Americans would maintain a Jewish identity depended on our ability to connect them to the Jewish community.

In addressing this challenge, we saw an opportunity. Young Israeli-Americans can speak both “Israeli” and “American.” They are the perfect bridge to what we often describe as “Israeliness.” We believe that exposure to Israeliness can enrich Jewish life, whether that is by exposing American Jews to the Hebrew language, Israeli culture, or the unique Israeli entrepreneurial mindset. Young people must be at the heart of this engagement. In addition, the language of entrepreneurship, innovation and technology – so present today in Israeli culture – is universal for Generations Y and Z.

This is why we launched a new pilot program for high school students called IAC Eitanim. Starting the program in the middle of the busy school year, we had the modest goal of reaching three cities and 50 students. Within a month, the pilot was adopted by seven cities nationwide, and attracted more than 120 students.

Half of the high school students in each group are American Jews and the other half are Israeli-Americans, who have at least one parent or grandparent born in Israel. We are already seeing how the two groups complement each other to advance the mission of the program – how a stronger connection to Israel strengthens your Jewish identity at the same time that a stronger Jewish identity strengthens your connection to Israel.

Drawing on my background in educational technology, I created Eitanim using a Project-Based Learning model developed in Israel. It puts students in the driver’s seat of the learning process. We ask the students to innovate solutions to various real-world challenges – ranging from how to fight BDS on campus, to how to contend with California’s draught – through which they hone critical thinking, leadership, and advocacy skills.

This week, more than 100 Eitanim students from across the country came together for a weeklong “Hackathon” in Los Angeles. Sixty percent Israeli-Americans, and forty percent Jewish Americans. Their challenge is to learn everything they can about how Israel’s water technologies can change the world, and come up with ideas that will help to educate the public, innovate in the field, and integrate these technologies into use in the U.S.

The ten groups that are competing for the best ideas simulate a start-up structure, each led by a student “CEO.” The start-up teams engage in every step of product development from research to marketing. Their mentors are Israeli-American innovators and tech gurus, including Amir Shevat, Director of Developer Relations at Slack; Iftach Wizel, co-founder of the Fox-Wizel retail group; Offir Gutelzon, a serial entrepreneur who sold his company to Getty Images; Hanoch Rabinovitz from Google, and more. We are thrilled to have received support from AOL, the Jewish National Fund, Netafim and others for the summer program.

The Hackathon will conclude with a presentation of the products to a panel of national innovation experts. The winning innovation will be presented on the main stage of the 3rd annual National Israeli-American Conference in Washington, D.C. this upcoming September. We will also lead a special Eitanim track for high school students at the conference.

In so many of the students that I meet participating in Eitanim, I see the legacy of the man that this program was named after: Major Eitan Belachsan, one of Israel’s heroes and my former commander in Sayeret Tzanchanim – the paratroopers’ recon unit. He tragically fell while fighting Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in February 1999. Using the power of Eitan’s story, we teach Zionist values, leadership skills, and most of all, pride in our Jewish heritage and the State of Israel.

This is what the IAC is all about. At Eitanim, we are creating living bridges between each and every participant – between Jewish-Americans and Israeli-Americans, between America and Israel, and between the rich tradition of the Jewish past and the great promise of the Jewish future.

Shoham Nicolet is the Chief Executive Officer of the Israeli-American Council.