Last week, IAC Eitanim hosted a summer hackathon for more than 100 Jewish high school students from across the country. This project-based learning program uses the example of Israeli innovators to teach teenagers critical thinking and leadership skills, while strengthening their Jewish identity. It brings together two groups who are often independent and not integrated—Israeli-Americans and Jewish Americansaround their shared heritage and love of Israel.

Below, we share some impressions of the program from IAC Eitanim participants.

Yarden Efraim, a junior at Westwood Regional High School in IAC Eitanim’s New Jersey chapter, said the activities have helped him connect with his Israeli-American identity.

“It’s a leadership experience that sort of delves into different modern topics, like computer science, marketing, branding—and many things that majorly impact the world today,” Efraim said. “But we also learn how to creatively solve problems by embracing our Israeliness.”

One of Efraim’s favorite parts of the program is the opportunity to learn from successful adults.

“It’s important for high schoolers to see what sort of directions we can go in,” Efraim said. “Eitanim connects us to older role models, who are connected to their Jewish and Israeli identity and have really succeeded.”

Yael Megido, a junior at Eastside Preparatory School in IAC Eitanim’s Seattle chapter, said one of her favorite projects has been creating a targeted pro-Israel ‘pitch.’

“Before this, if someone asked me to support my views with specifics, I wouldn’t be able to cite sources. I’d just say, ‘Check the internet?’” Megido said. “But now I know what specific contributions Israel has made to the world.”

Megido, whose parents moved to the U.S. two months before she was born, knew generally about Israel’s contributions to the high tech sector, but few of its medical and engineering innovations.

Though the Seattle chapter includes many first-generation Israeli-Americans like Megido, many Jewish American members don’t have family in Israel or speak Hebrew, so IAC Eitanim helps them learn about Israel—where it’s headed and what people think about it.

Shelly Had, part of the Boston chapter, who has an Israeli father and an American mother, said her favorite part of the program has been the opportunity to build friendships with a diverse group of Jewish teens while they all learn new skills—and about the common challenge of anti-Semitism.

“There was a moment when we were talking about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campuses where I realized just how big of an issue it was,” she said. “My town is like a bubble compared to the rest of the world.”

The program helps strengthen teens’ ability to counter this sort of sentiment. And teens like Shai Shimoni, also part of the Boston chapter, said the program also introduced him to Jewish American peers he expects will be lifelong friends.

“Before, I had a lot less interaction with Jewish Americans, but now I’ve gotten to learn about their views,” Shimoni said. “I love that it incorporates Israel and that I’m working together with kids that are Israeli and American to learn to celebrate Israel and advocate for Israel.”

Ron Vered, a high school freshman who moved to the U.S. four years ago, said becoming friends with Jewish Americans has not only helped him improve his English vocabulary, but also helped him feel closer to Israel because he gets a chance to talk about his home country—and dispel the misconceptions about it that even Israel-supporters often have.

“But the most special part is that we get to work on real-life problems, ones we could really have an effect on if we put in hard work and effort,” he said. “We learn how to organize and research really well, and we always work in groups with different people, so now we all know each other and how everyone thinks. It’s really cool.”

Both Shimoni and Efraim participated in the hackathon, and felt they gained valuable skills and new friends. Efraim said IAC Eitanim has opened his eyes, inspired him, and driven him to connect with his Israeliness on an occupational level.

“It really did help develop the ‘thinking outside of the box’ part of my brain,” he said. “I’m really, really looking forward to seeing what we do.”

An IAC Eitanim Hackathon group. Photo credit: Bell Productions

An IAC Eitanim Hackathon group. Photo credit: Bell Productions

To learn more about IAC Eitanim, please visit www.israeliamerican.org/eitanim

There will be an IAC Eitanim track at IAC’s upcoming National Conference in September 2016 in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.iackenes.org