Family Matters: Teach Your Children
What is one of the latest trends among Jewish teenagers? Joining special organizations where kids not only give money but help decide where that money is spent.
As parents, we serve as role models to our children by contributing time and money to charity and worthy causes. We encourage them to raise money for day schools and youth organizations and to fit community service into their busy schedules. But how do you nurture future philanthropists? a At 16, Rachel Levenson has already sat for two years on the Peninsula Jewish Community Teen Foundation in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, learning how to participate in funding decisions. Now Levenson, a junior at Mountain View High School, helps advise the youth foundation—one of three in the area. PJCTF (www.sfjcf.org)is a project of the Jewish Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties through a grant from the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation. The program’s 22 members, from 8th through 10th grades, are required to make a minimum donation as well as help allocate funds, says coordinator Sue Schwartzman.
“Among my favorite projects were Freedom from Hunger—microloans for women—and a Glimpse of Hope, building a well in Ethiopia,” says Levenson, who wants to major in philanthropy in college.
Levenson’s work is admirable, and she is far from alone in her focus. A growing number of programs are helping create the next generation of Jewish philanthropists with both success and sophistication. Depending on the initiative, teenagers may formulate mission statements and help with strategic planning. In some cases, teens research grant proposals; in others, they are “actively involved in allocations,” explains Iva Kaufman, associate director of planned giving and endowments at United Jewish Communities.
Teen philanthropy is “definitely a movement and a hot field,” says Leah Siskin, coordinator of the youth philanthropy component of the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute in Rockville, Maryland (www.jypi.org). “I was at a conference on experiential learning, and there were six of us involved in this. A lot of people asked questions because they wanted to do something similar.”
There are already more than 50 teen philanthropy programs across the United States, with collective assets of more than $1.2 million. UJC’s General Assembly dedicated a panel to the topic last November
In April 2006, the Jewish Funders Network (www.jfunders.org) sponsored the first youth philanthropy conference. Over 100 teens met in a way that “really showed the excitement and potential publicly,” says Stephanie Zelkind, director of youth philanthropy for JFN.
And in August of that year, JFN launched the Jewish Teen Funders Network as a central address for Jewish youth philanthropy.
There is at least one Web site devoted to the field —www.jphilanthro py.com (part of the Jewish Family & Life network) — started by Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. An administrator at Atlanta’s Weber Day School, Spira-Savett is considered by many the movement’s philosophical father.
And this summer, the San Diego Jewish Community Center will offer 14- to 16-year-olds a camp for intensive-service projects, site visits and grant deliberations and decisions.
Formal teen philanthropy has secular roots in organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In 1998, Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon gave the movement a boost by founding B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy (www.hgf.org) at his Western Massachusetts-based foundation. In the program, local children sets up a bar or bat mitzva fund, from which they donate the annual interest to tzedaka. The amounts are matched by B’nai Tzedek. The Grinspoon Foundation double-matches each contribution and sponsors a teen board for kids who want to be more directly involved.
Across the country, 33 communities have emulated the model, which national coordinator Gail Lansky calls “donor-advised funds.”
There is another foundation model, in which teen boards help decide how to spend a certain amount of predesignated money. The teens themselves do not have to contribute to the fund to serve on the board. A model known as the 7th-grade fund is used by a number of day and Hebrew schools in which kids and parents are encouraged to donate to a pooled tzedaka fund in place of giving individual bar and bat mitzva gifts.
Mason Dunn McDonagh, 15, got his feet wet in philanthropy by giving some bar mitzva money to B’nai Tzedek. “I am able to give the interest of my fund every year to a Jewish organization of my choosing, which is a great way to get involved,” he says.
McDonagh, a 10th grader at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School in Southwick, Massachusetts, also sits on the Grinspoon youth foundation and is on the allocations committee of Hazon, an organization that sponsors an environmental bike ride that contributes to the youth foundation.
“I love tzedaka,” he says. “I have learned that a group of people with different values Jewishly can get together and agree on a cause.”
Sophie Wolman is serving on Rose Youth Foundation in Denver for the third year. Established by Rose Community Foundation (www.rcfdenver.org), one of the earliest proponents of the teenager foundation model, the group’s 23 members receive a set amount each year—which has just gone up to $50,000—to distribute, says Lisa Farber Miller, Rose Community Foundation professional coordinator.
A senior at Kent Denver School in Englewood, Colorado, the 17-year-old Wolman had a motive beyond wanting to help others when she joined the foundation.
“I moved here from New York before my sophomore year,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable with Jewish youth groups. I was interested in finding a different way [to belong]. I found a home at the foundation.”
One grant she found particularly memorable was establishing a twice-weekly intensive class in conversational Hebrew at the local Jewish Community Center. “We got to interview teachers and worked with the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education to set up the curriculum,” says Wolman.
Like their adult counterparts, the budding philanthropists also deal with thorny questions about what constitutes Jewish philanthropy. Do they give, for example, only to Jewish causes? Should Israel be an automatic recipient, or should local needs take precedence? How do they define tikkun olam, repairing the world? How do they address needs with limited funds?
Teenage philanthropy takes hard work, thought and dedication. But parents see the benefits. Sara Weinberger of Northampton, Massachusetts, appreciates her daughter Rachel Brazie’s involvement in B’nai Tzedek.
“Participating has enabled my daughter to learn about the needs of her community and the importance and power of working together…to respond to those needs,” Weinberger wrote in an e-mail to Valerie Gintis, B’nai Tzedek’s director. “She is learning skills, such as how to review grants and how to work collaboratively….
“That she is learning this within the context of a Jewish organization has helped her experience herself as a valued member of a Jewish community of teens who are committed to tikkun olam. She is beginning to experience herself as someone with leadership potential, who enjoys activities that make a difference.”
Rachel Levenson sounds like a stereotypical teenager when she says it was “cool” to meet other teens at the JFN youth conference. But she sounds like an adult philanthropist in the making when she mentions the personal $5,000 endowment fund she opened through her federation.
“I don’t know why,” she says of teen philanthropy, “but youth are becoming more involved in leadership instead of caught up in [the latest] jeans or what we are getting for our birthday. But teen philanthropy is enlightening. Otherwise, I would not have known about needs around the world.”
You might say saving the world is “cool,” but it also is building character and ensuring the future of the Jewish community.