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Youth Philanthropy Movement Gains Momentum

‘Charity is right up my alley,” said Sara Goldstein, who volunteers at a hospital near her home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and teaches Hebrew school at her local synagogue. So when the time came for Goldstein’s bat mitzvah, it was only natural for her to set aside $180 of her gifts to donate to charity. But rather than simply giving it away, Goldstein got a $320 match from a local donor and started her own personal endowment fund.

One of a rapidly growing number of young people involved in formal Jewish youth philanthropy programs, Goldstein — now a 15-year-old sophomore at Desert Mountain High School — will appear Monday with three other teenagers on a panel titled “Our Young Philanthropists” at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles. The panel is the first of its kind for the annual gathering.

No longer simply the realm of nickel-and-dime-filled cardboard tzedakah boxes, giving among Jewish youth is increasingly modeled after adult giving, utilizing formal mission statements, strategic decision-making and financial planning. Jewish youth philanthropy has “matured to a place where, frankly, it can no longer be ignored as a movement,” said Iva Kaufman, who is organizing Monday’s session. The movement now comprises some 50 organizations nationwide, which collectively account for $1.2 million in assets, according to Kaufman, UJC’s associate director of planned giving and endowments.

Youth philanthropy was pioneered in the 1990s by secular organizations like the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In 1998, philanthropist Harold Grinspoon saw an opportunity to engage Jewish youth in an innovative way, and he founded the B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Program from within his western Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation. B’nai Tzedek provides infrastructure and matching monies for young people to create personal endowment funds, like Goldstein’s, from which they donate the interest each year to charity. The concept has rapidly gained a foothold nationwide, with the number of local chapters almost doubling to 33 from 18 in the last three years. “My goal is to help create a new generation of Jewish philanthropists who support Jewish causes worldwide,” Grinspoon told the Forward.

Broadly speaking, in addition to the B’nai Tzedek model of individual funds, the burgeoning Jewish youth philanthropy movement encompasses two other models. In the youth foundation model, pioneered by the San Diego-based Jewish Community Foundation and the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, a foundation allocates a certain amount of money each year, and then selects a youth board, which collectively decides how to spend it. Since its inception in 2001, the Denver program has engaged some 100 teenagers, who have distributed more than $190,000 to organizations and initiatives as diverse as supporting gay and lesbian Jews, providing Hebrew language instruction and fighting homelessness. Alternatively, in the group endowment fund model, teens contribute to a group fund — which may then be supplemented by a local donor or foundation, or by the teens’ own fundraising efforts — and then the group decides collectively how to spend the money or the interest on the money. This model is gaining traction in Jewish schools during the year when most children become bar or bat mitzvah; known as “seventh-grade funds,” in these settings schools often encourage parents to make a lump donation to the fund in lieu of giving individual bar and bat mitzvah gifts throughout the year.

Programs usually include educational components, hosting forums throughout the year where teens wrestle with everything from evaluating nonprofits to improving financial literacy to creating their own personal tzedakah mission statements.

Many local federations or foundations offer more than one of these models, and the specific approach in each setting is different. The “Give a Mitzvah — Do a Mitzvah” program at the UJA-Federation of New York, for example, combines a group endowment fund with fundraising and direct service. The New York program alone has raised some $400,000 between donations from teens and the teens’ own fundraising efforts, according to UJC’s Kaufman.

“There’s a lot of momentum,” said Gail Lansky, national director of B’nai Tzedek. B’nai Tzedek capitalized on that momentum in April, when it sponsored a youth philanthropy conference in Denver, which piggybacked on the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network by hosting 100 teen members of B’nai Tzedek from across the country. For most of the conference, the teenagers participated in separate panels and discussions, but on one day “they fully overlapped with the adult conference, and participated as complete equals in sessions,” according to JFN’s president, Mark Charendoff. “Funders saw 100 teenagers milling about and participating in sessions. It was a terrific experience.”

Adam Simkin, 17, a senior at Northampton High School in Massachusetts, was at the April conference. With $180 in bar mitzvah gifts and $320 in matching funds, Simkin started a B’nai Tzedek personal endowment fund at 13. He has been adding a quarter a day ever since, and it has grown to $800; with 5% interest from his fund, Simkin makes gifts ranging from $25 to $50 each year to Israeli nonprofits such as ZAKA, which provides first-aid and rescue services and assists in identifying victims of terror and accidents. “The biggest thing I took away from [the conference] was a lot of energy and excitement,” he said. “More than just an activity that people are organizing, [youth philanthropy is] becoming a very powerful force.”

Recognizing that a movement is taking shape, this summer JFN hired its first director of youth philanthropy. Stefanie Zelkind took the job in August, with the aim of providing education, staff training and infrastructure support to Jewish youth philanthropy programs nationwide — “to serve as a central address for local programs that already exist,” said Zelkind, “as well as communities that are looking to establish programs and are looking for guidance as to how best to do this.”

Most Jewish youth philanthropy leaders mark the Grinspoon Foundation’s investment in making B’nai Tzedek into a national model as the turning point between a good idea and a real movement. But as with all things, timing is also a factor. Charendoff said that a group of JFN funders convened some five years ago to discuss hiring a youth philanthropy coordinator. “It did not take root. There was not that kind of support” at the time, he said. “Why did it take root this time around? Part of it is the timing. Ideas have to ripen before we know enough about them.”

Trends in Jewish giving have also played a role. “The big trends in philanthropy, in the Jewish world, are… this very robust picture of the endowments, and philanthropic funds growing,” UJC’s Kaufman said. “So you have endowment funds in many forms, and one of the forms that’s emerging is individual funds for teens.”

Beyond these factors, say Jewish youth philanthropy advocates, it’s simply a good idea. “It’s transdenominational. It doesn’t matter if you can read the Torah backward and forward, you can be a good Jewish philanthropist,” said Valerie Gintis, B’nai Tzedek director for western Massachusetts. “Most of the data shows that when teens finish their bar or bat mitzvahs, they start to disappear from the radar screens of Jewish institutions.” In a community that is constantly struggling to maintain the attention of young people in a secular world, said Gintis, “it’s a very unifying way to engage teens in the core values that underlie Jewish beliefs.”

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