December 8, 2019

IAC Teen Hackathon Brings Jewish Students Closer to Israel

In May, West Los Angeles resident Darya Aminia learned she had landed the CEO job she’d applied for. But Aminia isn’t a seasoned executive. She’s a 15-year-old high school sophomore. And the CEO gig was for the recent Israeli American Council’s (IAC) Eitanim summer hackathon — a five-day residential program that took place last month at American Jewish University (AJU). 

The third-annual hackathon brought together 169 Jewish- and Israeli-American middle and high school students from across the country. This year, for the first time, a handful of students also came from Israel. 

The students were divided into 17 teams and tasked with “developing a groundbreaking solution to introduce Israel and its Jewish heritage to people visiting Israel during their inflight experience.”

On June 29, the students, together with their two dozen volunteer mentors and a small group of family and friends, participated in what was billed as Demo Day at AJU’s Gindi Auditorium.  The seven final teams (semifinals were held earlier in the day), presented their products to the audience and judges: Danna Balas Caldwell, president of Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt; Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL; David Gonen, co-founder of Curious Minds; and IAC CEO and Eitanim founder Shoham Nicolet. In addition to the hackathon, IAC Eitanim operates programs in over a dozen states throughout the school year.

Each of the seven groups had four minutes for its presentation, which included professional quality videos, charts, graphs and budget forecasts. Some groups created product demos, including a rough version of a virtual reality tour of the Western Wall.

The proposal for “In A Bite” began with a takedown of traditional airline food. Instead, it promised delicious dishes like couscous that reflected Israel’s diversity. Each item would come with a brief, printed description for a more immersive experience.

The students were divided into 17 teams and tasked with “developing a groundbreaking solution to introduce Israel and its Jewish heritage to people visiting Israel.”

But the winning product was “180°.” Based on the concept of tikkun olam, 180°, which was conceived as a nonprofit, aimed to connect travelers to causes and organizations in Israel that resonated with them. They could then opt to make charitable donations or volunteer.

Even though Aminia’s team’s virtual reality simulated bus tour of Israel called “Israelity” did not win the big prize, the experience “definitely motivated me to be a better leader,” she said. The biggest challenge was “keeping everyone on task, she said. “That was very difficult for my group,” she admitted, in large part because her group became so close over the course of the week. 

However, that’s one of the goals of IAC Eitanim. While connecting these Jewish tweens and teens to Israel and their Jewish identity is important, Nicolet said, “Friendship is the best gift you can get out of Eitanim.” 

Nicolet, who grew up in Israel, demonstrated that value by sharing three photographs with the attendees before the finalists’ presentations. The first was of him in a program in seventh grade, with his own small group of friends. Nicolet credited that hands-on, project-based learning program with changing his life and teaching him “to innovate and work hard to meet deadlines.” Those experiences, he said, served as the model for IAC Eitanim.

The second photo from 1999 showed a group of Israeli soldiers, including Nicolet, alongside Maj. Eitan Belachsan, who was killed while fighting Hezbollah mere days after the photo was taken, and whom the Eitanim program is named after. 

The final photograph was of 20 individuals, including Nicolet, who were pivotal in founding the IAC 11 years ago. “It is all about the team,” Nicolet said. “Great things are done in teams.”