by Becca Linden

3987967895_0ac0347d61Teens cannot drive. They cannot vote. But now hundreds of Jewish teens are pooling and donating their post-bar/bat mitzvah resources and skills every year, and they are being taken seriously by the nonprofits vying for their money. In other words, these teens are taking on significant personal and communal responsibility.

Jewish teen philanthropy groups are distributing serious amounts of money – more than $700,000 in 2008 was granted by 24 Jewish teen foundations across the country, according to a survey commissioned last year for the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN). And money is not all they give. “As I learned in my first philanthropy session, philanthropy does not just include giving money,” says Bradley Maran, 16, of the Door and Ladder Society in Atlanta. “Giving money is essential; however, donating wisdom and time is just as vital.”

Many of the initiatives to get teens involved in philanthropy have been grassroots. As many as 20 autonomous teen philanthropy groups sprouted up across the United States by the year 2006, leading to institutional investment in the creation of the JTFN. Established in 2006, JTFN is a nationally coordinated effort under the umbrella of the adult philanthropy focused Jewish Funders Network (JFN), backed by philanthropists Ricky Shechtel, Barbra Gervis Lubran, and Julie Fisher Cummings.

Each group is made up of 10 to 20 post-bar and bat mitzvah youth, each of whom contributes financially – anywhere from $100 to $500 – to a shared grantmaking pool. The groups meet during the course of a semester or school year. Although the first known teen philanthropy groups were secular or Christian, these Jewish teens undertake a grantmaking process and learn about giving through an explicitly Jewish lens, within a framework of Jewish values and with special attention to needs in the Jewish community.

As such, in many ways, these teen foundations are a microcosm of the American Jewish world. Most are pluralistic, communitywide initiatives. All of the groups struggle through their decisions. “Inevitably, heated debate arose over the question of donating part of our funds to causes that primarily help non-Jews,” says Rabbi Mike Schultz, who led a group a few years ago called Maimonides Money Pot Youth Tzedakah Foundation at Stern Hebrew High School, a modern Orthodox high school in northeast Philadelphia. “Some of the participants had learned a strong ethic of take care of your own first, implicitly based on Maimonides’ teaching that support of one’s family takes precedence over supporting all others. Since the Jews are our family, the teens argued, and there’s no end of Jewish poverty, we should give only to Jewish causes. Other students felt a more universalistic ethic.” The balance his group ultimately agreed upon was to donate 65 percent of their funds to primarily Jewish causes, and 35 percent to primarily non-Jewish causes – but others, naturally, differ.

Stefanie Zelkind, director of Youth Philanthropy at the JFN, points out differences with the field exist as well. “While we see day school enrollment dropping off after eighth grade, enrollment in supplementary schools dropping off significantly after seventh grade, and enrollment in Jewish summer camps dropping off as well, for this age cohort, the number of teens signing on to participate in Jewish youth philanthropy programs is growing.”

It seems much of the reason for this efficacy for engagement comes from the real-world application of values these teens learn only in the abstract in their schools. As Sarah Gelman, 20, a student at Brandeis University who participated in the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute in the greater Washington area, says, “Though I had attended Hebrew school for many years, this was the first time I had been able to apply the concept of tikkun olam that I had learned in school to real life and become actively engaged in social justice.”

Teens also learn about networking, communication skills, and for many, parts of the world they were previously unexposed to. All the while, teens engage in a process of figuring out their identity in the world, learning about themselves and others.

Most importantly, perhaps, teens in these groups have a safe space to explore Jewish values, texts, and traditions, and get permission and encouragement to find relevance in Judaism, making it their own. Gelman remembers, “I experienced Jewish life outside of the synagogue for the first time. I found philanthropy to be personally and spiritually significant.”

Becca Linden graduated from Wesleyan University with High Honors and is currently working at Jerusalem for Encounter – an organization that exposes Jewish leaders and educators to Palestinian life and to Jews from various political and denominational backgrounds.

image: Jewish teen philanthropy programs introduce participants to the grantmaking process. Photo provided by Stefanie Zelkind.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Philanthropy issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.