At a conference room at theWit hotel in downtown Chicago, the ideas were coming in thick and fast. At five different tables, 25 students from colleges across the United States were sharing thoughts and suggestions about how to take ISRAEL21c content and turn it into innovative social-media campaigns.

Outside it was snowing, the temperature hovering around minus 6 degrees Celsius in true wintertime Chicago fashion, but inside was a hive of warmth and activity, the room abuzz with original and creative proposals.

ISRAEL21c has been running its Digital Ambassador program in the US since 2014. The program has been a resounding success, with student ambassadors not only placing ISRAEL21c content in all sorts of exciting and unusual publications, but at the same time developing and enhancing their own relationship with Israel.

The Digital Ambassadors get to meet and work together in person for the first time. Photo by Nicky Blackburn

This year, with the support of the iCenter for Israel Education, and donors Susan and Moses Libitzky, ISRAEL21c brought 25 Digital Ambassadors together for their first-ever two-day retreat, allowing them to meet one another and ISRAEL21c staff, and work together on collaborative projects.

“I really enjoyed being able to meet everyone in person,” said Frankie Alchanati, an ambassador for ISRAEL21c since December 2016. “Throughout the past year, I have just seen the ambassadors through a computer screen. Now I was able to put a personality and character to each person. Having the opportunity to really converse and learn about each other caused me to feel more motivated to be a better ambassador.”

The Chicago retreat, themed “Telling Israel’s Story,” took place on January 14 and 15. Students were divided into groups according to their interests, and invited to compete in a hackathon. Presentations to help them in their work were given by me as well as by ISRAEL21c organizational consultant Pearl Kane and communications strategist Nathan Miller.

Students worked on their projects throughout the afternoon and evening, with some of them working late into the night to get their presentations ready for the next day.

From left, judges Dan Ostroff, Moran Birman, Mark Achler and Dan Tatar. Photo by Erica Barraca/Erica Barraca Photography

After a working breakfast on Monday, the students presented their ideas to the judges: Dan Ostroff, founder and CEO of Internet design company Doogma; Mark Achler, a member of the board of directors at RedSeal and managing director of investment firm Math Venture Partners; Dan Tatar, director of communications at the iCenter; and Moran Birman, the consul for public diplomacy at the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-West.

“I was very impressed at the high level the students attained and demonstrated within a very short time,” Ostroff told ISRAEL21c. “Core ideas were excellent and engaging, as were the presentations.”

Winners of the hackathon were Sophia Davidson, Sarah Winkelman, David Steele, Romualdo Baldonado and Parker Alchanati, who came up with an idea for a letter-writing campaign to thank Israeli aid organizations for their work last year helping people affected by disasters in the US, Nepal, Mexico, Syria and Madagascar, among others.

The students created a website, Gratitude4Aid, to make the process of sending out letters easier.

Hackathon winners, from left: Sophia Davidson, Sarah Winkelman, David Steele, Romualdo Baldonado and Parker Alchanati. Photo by Erica Barraca/Erica Barraca Photography

Runners-up were Joanna Falla, Rachel Poulin, Marisa Daniels and Emily Hecht, who came up with a plan to distribute “green” stories from ISRAEL21c to environmental groups, and created the salt water challenge – where people have to either drink a small cup of seawater or donate money to eco-groups working to save the Dead Sea, in an effort to raise awareness of the environmental problems facing this unique Israeli body of water.

Other ideas included an interactive map of vegan and vegetarian Israeli restaurants worldwide; a plan to bring exposure to the technologies emerging from the Negev Desert; and a plan to encourage American rehab centers to bring Israeli tactics and technologies into their hospitals.

“I really enjoyed competing in the ISRAEL21c hackathon,” said Alchanati. “I’ve attended conferences in the past, but most of them consisted of listening to lectures all day. Although in the moment I would be enthralled, I usually left the conference retaining about 60% of the information given.

“With the hackathon, I was able to be proactive and research information about various topics related to my subject of focus. I left feeling even more knowledgeable and passionate about various topics relating to Israel than when I started the hackathon.”

Students put the last-minute touches to their presentation. Photo by Erica Barraca/Erica Barraca Photography 

“I couldn’t be prouder of how the students were able to unite on a shared cause,” said Ari Feinstein, the Chicago-based Engagement Coordinator of the Digital Ambassador program. “I was impressed by how much all 25 of them were able to connect with one another. Our hope is these connections will only grow as they continue their work as Digital Ambassadors. We have high expectations of how they will implement their plans in the coming weeks.”

Ostroff agreed: “I enjoyed meeting the students from all over the USA and am looking forward to seeing the follow-up, evolution and implementation of the great ideas that the teams presented,” he said.

“We were delighted with the success of our first-ever retreat,” said Amy Friedkin, President of the Board at ISRAEL21c, citing the generosity of the Libitzkys as well as the Koret Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation for their ongoing support.