By Robert Lichtman
Unlike some love stories that are best kept discreet, this one should to be told … and re-told. It’s all true. It’s a love story about a woman and some teenagers.
The story started when the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program was established in 2006 at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life by Milly Iris, family and friends in memory of Milly’s late husband, Herb. It was not enough that Milly and her posse funded the program through the Herb and Milly Iris Youth and Family Philanthropy Endowment of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, providing money to guide 40 high school-aged teenagers along a two-year curriculum of learning and experiences that would expose them to philanthropic challenges and opportunities; it was not enough that Milly et al provided the funds to hire an educator to connect these activities with Jewish learning; it was not enough that they matched the money invested by each of the participating teens dollar for dollar – money that the teens would in turn invest in our community. That was all good, but it was not enough. Milly had advice – good advice – about what lessons the teens might take away, how best to learn those lessons, and how to have fun while doing it.
Here’s one example: the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program hosts an annual “Dinner of Giving” for the teen Advisors (that’s what we call the participants) and community leaders to learn with and from each other; Milly was the human centerpiece at these dinners. And like other centerpieces that people vie to take home, Milly was the source of abundant scarves, hats, and lots of love to keep the experience alive for the teens long after the event. Here’s another: She hosted and presided over the elegant end-of-year Banquet in her unique style with the deliberate message to the Advisors and their parents that they were important, and what they were doing was as worthy of celebration and respect as any other Jewish communal enterprise.
The Iris Teen Tzedakah Program matured, developing two consecutive tracks, one that focused on the local community and a second on Israel and overseas. At Milly’s family’s suggestion, it created another track for alumni who took the lessons of philanthropic activism that they learned in the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program with them to college and even beyond; the Program now funds proposals from alumni as well. Yet despite these changes and the intrinsic desire to improve in accord with new realities and opportunities, the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program stays true to two foundational principles that characterize Milly and Herb Iris. The first principle is that the funds allocated would go to those organizations and causes that are funded by our federation. This is a real-life learning experience about our Greater MetroWest NJ community and what Jewish text, tradition and values have to say about Tzedakah and about Jewish mutual responsibility in a federation community.
The other non-negotiable principle is that the teens would be the decision-makers on how the funds are allocated. One memorable night in our conference center, two groups met behind closed doors, one next to the other. In one, the federation allocations committee was deliberating. In the other, the Iris Teen Tzedakah Advisors were having the same discussion about the same needs in the same community.
For eight years Milly Iris and “her teens” took on the world, making over 60 grants of over $120,000. And along the way, engaging and preparing 220 young people to Bring Jewish Learning to Life through their tzedakah and leadership activities. This common, loving bond kept Milly vibrant and alive; she truly felt excited, inspired and grateful that she was making a difference together with the Advisors.
But Milly grew ill. She would keep the dates of significant Iris Teen Tzedakah events in her calendar, but when those dates arrived, Milly did not. The teens sent photos to her. They wrote letters of encouragement and thanks. And that is how it was for a while until after two years it got to the point where none of the Advisors had ever met Milly. And although Milly knew every aspect of the program, she never met these Advisors. But this did not dampen the relationship. The correspondence and exchange of love continued.
In early October we learned that Milly was in hospice care and that unlike many times over the past two years, a rally in her health would likely not occur. The un-seen Advisors sent their collective love notes again. Milly’s daughter gathered them up and read them to her mom, one by one. One, like this:
“Thank you so much for your generosity, kindness, and example, and for investing in my generation. I wish you peace and strength. I hope the love of your family, friends, and community is keeping you warm like a fire on a cold night.”
These notes were among the last words that Milly heard. Milly knew she was not alone. She had her family. She had her friends. She had her teens. Milly passed away on October 24, the beginning of Cheshvan, the joyless month.
Like any true love story, the love continues and grows. Thanks to the generosity and foresight of the Iris family and friends in creating a permanent endowment, the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program will continue to reach, teach and inspire young people to engage with each other, to partner with the Jewish community and to create a future where a love story like this can occur over and over again.
Robert Lichtman is the Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization in Greater MetroWest NJ.