Jewish teenagers are learning that tzedaka involves more than slipping a few coins into the collection box at synagogue. In innovative programs around the country, teens are being given control over thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars in an effort to teach them the ins and outs of philanthropy — from reading budgets and setting funding priorities to deciding how to express their Jewish values through charitable giving.
“It means I can make an impact for myself, and for other people my age, but also for future generations,” said Elizabeth Walker, a high school senior from a Denver suburb. For the past five years, Walker has sat on the board of a youth philanthropy program run by the Rose Youth Foundation, a local Jewish organization.
Walker’s board of eighth-grade and high school students — applicants chosen annually to represent 16 Denver-area schools — has control over $50,000 in grant monies every year. The funds are generated by the Rose Community Foundation, a community trust created by the 1995 sale of Rose Medical Center, Denver’s Jewish hospital. The board solicits grant applications through a formal process, doing site visits and putting applicants through a due diligence process that involves close examination of program proposals and budget projections.
Board members are given only a few rules on how to distribute the money: It must go to local nonprofit organizations, either as one large block grant or split among several groups, and it must be given in a “primarily Jewish way,” though the teenagers themselves are charged with deciding what that means.
“They struggle with that, and deciding whether giving to a non-Jewish organization with a Jewish intent, like serving the homeless, counts just as well as giving to the Jewish Family Service,” said Lisa Farber Miller, the program’s director. “But we try to teach them about prescriptive philanthropy, being proactive, being involved, wherever they’re giving.”
Nearly 20 similar Jewish philanthropy programs for teens exist in America, and organizers generally agree that their main objective is to show young Jews — whether they come from wealthy families that have their own private charitable trusts or will grow up to volunteer on public foundation boards — that charitable giving can involve something more creative than simply writing an annual check to the United Jewish Communities or Amnesty International.
According to a decade-long study by the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project, a secular teen philanthropy program first underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation 12 years ago, people who engage in philanthropic activities as teenagers — even if the money isn’t theirs, as in traditional tzedaka programs — are more than twice as likely to volunteer their time to charitable causes when they become adults. They also are more likely to give larger amounts of money when they get older.
“The original question was, how do we connect teens into life-long giving, and how do teens begin to see themselves as givers?” said K’vod Wieder, director of Massachusetts’s B’nai Tzedek Teen Philanthropy Program. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation established the program in 1998.
Teen philanthropy programs vary in their details. Some, like the Rose Youth Foundation’s and another program run by Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., ask for only token donations, if any, from a limited number of participants, and simply hand over temporary control of existing endowments to the teenagers. Others,
like B’nai Tzedek and the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute program in the Washington, D.C., area, recruit local teens who individually raise their own contributions — up to several hundred dollars apiece — and then match them with local donations, endowment funds or other grants.
In Massachusetts, Wieder guides the 20 students on his board in granting up to $15,000 each year. Those funds are aggregated from individual student contributions of $100 or more, which are matched on a two-to-one basis by the Grinspoon Foundation. That foundation also oversees parallel programs that provide matching grants for smaller, individual tzedaka funds of $500 for teenagers. (The Grinspoon Foundation helps organize smaller youth boards for other Jewish groups and, along with the Rose Youth Foundation, will sponsor a national conference next spring for 100 Jewish teen philanthropists.)
The reasons for the programs’ existence are as diverse as their formats.
In Denver, where the Jewish community is relatively small and fragmented, part of the goal is to bring together a diverse group of teenagers, from secular public school students to Orthodox yeshiva students, to forge links among young Jews who otherwise might not have opportunities to meet.
“These are kids who are looking for their own sense of Jewish community,” Farber Miller said. “What has been very powerful is the opportunity for these kids to create their own sense of Jewish life by doing a Jewish activity. We’re creating Jews.”
In Beverly Hills, the organizers of Temple Emanuel’s program — which is open to teens whose families are synagogue members — focus on teaching amcha (grass-roots) giving, and try to impart a sense of social justice in addition to teaching teenagers to look at charity in a sophisticated fashion.
Temple Emanuel gives its board of 30 high school students $10,000 annually to donate from a $250,000 fund. (The fund was initially endowed by an anonymous $125,000 donation from a member that was matched by contributions from the synagogue’s own funds.) Each participant contributes $72 — four times chai — to buy a “seat” on the program board, and engages in the process of choosing recipient organizations. Recipients thus far have included a summer camp for underprivileged children, an awareness and advocacy group focused on the genocide in Darfur and a program that buys schoolbooks for Iraqi schoolchildren.
“Every kid who’s gone to Hebrew school has done a tzedaka simulation, but it’s so much more powerful when they have real money to give away,” said Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller, who created the synagogue’s program three years ago. “And let’s face it, these kids are going to be more likely to pick small areas that they support and fund them, rather than giving to large organizations, so this is a way to train the next generation of funders, who will be thoughtful givers of tzedaka.”
Like Farber Miller, Geller said that these programs also provide a way to keep teenagers involved with their Jewish educations — and with their synagogues or Jewish youth groups — after their bar or bat mitzvahs are over. Along with learning to read nonprofits’ 990 tax forms and to lobby for their favorite organizations among fellow board members, the teenagers in the Temple Emanuel program also spend time with Geller, reading texts from the Torah, the Talmud and Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah to expand their view of what Jewish giving is beyond the simple practice of tithing.
“I didn’t choose to be part of this because it was a Jewish organization,” said Jake Petzold, a high school sophomore who has been part of Geller’s program for three years. “But because it is, I think it’s part of our responsibility to learn what our tradition says about tzedaka and charity.”
In Denver, students underwrite specific initiatives, rather than giving to charities’ general funds. Last year, after participants found that they all had an interest in learning Hebrew outside the religious context of congregational schools, the students bankrolled a secular after-school Hebrew class in which several of them are now participating.
“We get to create something from start to finish, rather than just joining a legacy that someone else has created,” said Walker, who is part of the Denver program. “When you do that, you know that this is a product of you and the other people cooperating to make something happen.”