Young Jewish Americans are not the problem; they are the solution

Many are talking about a growing gap between the next generation of American Jewry and the State of Israel. Yet, bridging the gap requires more than generic calls for dialogue. The solution must involve bold, innovative, and inspirational ideas – and then translating these ideas into creative programming with a tangible impact.

At the Israeli-American Council (IAC), one of our key contributions to this effort is a program called IAC Eitanim, a unique entrepreneurship initiative for middle and high school students that allows them to connect, explore, and experience Israel while preparing for college and developing professional skills. The students benefit from monthly sessions throughout the school year with top experts from various fields and group mentors, strengthening skills such as problem solving, research and development, critical thinking, leadership, communication, collaboration, time management, and teamwork. Most importantly, the learning process puts the teens where they would like to be – in the “driver’s seat” through Project Based Learning methodologies.

Eitanim can shrink the gaps by creating meaningful connections to Israel through the the inspiration of Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship as a secret sauce. This past month in Los Angeles, IAC Eitanim held one of its flagship programs, the Summer Hackathon. The intensive five-day event gathered 170 Israeli, Israeli-American, and Jewish-American teens who took up the challenge of creating an original product to introduce Israel and Jewish heritage to passengers traveling to Israel during their in-flight experience.

As part of the panel of judges in the hackathon’s final round, I had the chance to watch the students pitch cutting-edge ideas. Each one of them had the potential to make a significant impact, and could potentially become a real-life company. I will present here the ideas produced by the hackathon’s three winning teams, which I believe are worthy of serious consideration by any venture funder or airline.

Why in-flight experience matters

Let’s start with the concept behind the hackathon’s challenge. The in-flight experience hasn’t really changed in the last several decades. We might have now personalized screens and more channels, but the experience is not personalized or engaging, and remains irrelevant to our destination.

Direct flights from the U.S. to Israel—ranging from 11-15 hours—provide a captive audience that stands ready to learn about and engage with Israel. My programming team, led by Orit Mizner, came up with the idea to create endless opportunities through a new in-flight experience that makes the long and tedious journey interactive, exciting, and more meaningful to the average tourist, while countering some of the common misconceptions about the country.  The teams were charged with creating continuity in the experience from the flight to the actual trip in Israel, and then on their way back to America.

Educating through food

The 3rd-place team in the hackathon offered a simple, yet brilliant idea. Everybody pays attention to the food on a long flight. Food is something we don’t forget, it can speak to anyone, and it can actually tell a story about people, their history, culture and places. Recognizing this potential, the team decided to use food to educate about diversity in Israel. The team’s idea was to pick food items that represent certain Israeli immigrant communities (Moroccan, Iraqi, Russian, etc.), and to place each item in a basic but well-designed package with a short and compelling story about the related Israeli immigrant community and its history. This turns in-flight meals into an enriching educational experience.

Virtual reality

The second-place team’s idea leverages the accessibility and affordability of virtual reality (VR) technology. Think about affordable VR glasses made out of cardboard, and a video that is custom-made for your specific passion and the touring you plan in Israel. Now add a layer of information, social network interaction, and the Israel experience starts before your plane lands, and continues when you land. With VR you can fly with your imagination, and develop endless opportunities.

Tikkun Olam

The 1st-place idea was a concept that is much more than a program. It is a paradigm shift. Millennials are famous for their commitment to social action. They look for meaningful connections to Israel beyond sending donations to well-known organizations. They want to be engaged and feel they are making an impact directly.

“Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) is an important value in Judaism that is currently used by much of American Jewry to promote social action towards addressing problems in third world countries. But what if we focused Tikkun Olam on Israel—helping the poor, feeding the hungry, or fostering inclusion for people with special needs?

Imagine receiving a map of Tikkun Olam opportunities in the areas you plan to visit in Israel. You would be able to donate to specific organizations while on the plane. When you arrive to the specific region, you would be able to visit the organization you donated to, and to volunteer if you chose to.

Think about the new level of deep  and long lasting connection this experience will create to Israel among young adults.

Young Jewish Americans are not part of the problem. They are the solution.

The teens participating in the IAC Eitanim Summer Hackathon rose to the challenge and proved that, indeed, innovative ideas for the in-flight experience can help bridge the gap between Israel and American Jewry.

The physical distance between these communities can be as far as 7,500 miles, depending on where one lives in the U.S. And when tensions flare in the American-Israeli relationship, the emotional toll adds to that distance. But with energy and ingenuity from the younger generation, that relationship can focus not on disagreements, but on upbeat and inspiring trends like entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. Focusing on their needs, desires and values, can  unite Israelis and Americans rather than dividing them.

Shoham Nicolet is Co-Founder and CEO of the Israeli-American Council.

About the Author
Shoham Nicolet is the Founding Chief Executive Officer of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the United States.
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