Jewish Teen Philanthropy Programs Hit Milestone and Keep Growing

Abby M. (l) and Georgia G., Portland, Ore.-area high schoolers and first-year members of the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation (OJCYF), share one of many positive feelings that stem from being teen philanthropists. Photo by Eden Swartz.
Abby M. (l) and Georgia G., Portland, Ore.-area high schoolers and first-year members of the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation (OJCYF), share one of many positive feelings that stem from being teen philanthropists. Photo by Eden Swartz.

By Jenn Director Knudsen

Julia Weiss’ parents taught with words and by example the import of giving back. Both Julia and her big sister took their advice very seriously.

“My older sister had asked for cans of food to donate instead of presents for her bat mitzvah project,” Julia, now 26, said. “I remember thinking I wanted to do something that lasted more than just one time.” And so she and her mom boarded a plane from Portland, Ore., to San Diego, to visit the southern California city’s Jewish Teen Foundation.

“We were so moved by the project in San Diego that we knew we had to create a similar project in Portland,” said Julia, who helped found the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation.

Today a Pitzer College graduate, marketing professional, and member of a young-adult giving circle, she said, “I felt like there weren’t that many outlets at the time for teens to feel empowered. I knew so many people who were wanting their voice to be heard but didn’t have a proper outlet to do so.”

The OJCYF became that platform, Julia said, “for teens to have a safe space to learn, self-reflect, and feel empowered” to help those in need with funds high school students raise and disburse via grants.

2016 marks OJCYF’s b’nai mitzvah year, and it is among the oldest of more than 100 Jewish teen philanthropic programs in the United States and Canada, according to Briana Holtzman of the New York City-based Jewish Teen Funders Network, which was founded a decade ago.

Unlike many great ideas that flame out over time, Jewish teen philanthropy nationwide caught fire and continues to burn. “It’s outgrown flying beneath the radar,” Julie Diamond, executive director of the OJCYF in Portland, said.

Last year alone, thousands of Jewish American and Canadian teens between 7th and 12th grades raised and disbursed $1 million – up from $600,000 just six years ago, according to a comparison of data from the JTFN’s 2010 and 2015 “Where Did the Money Go” surveys. Nonprofits all around the country feel the burgeoning impact, and the teens learn legions from their work, which is sponsored by organizations like community foundations, synagogues, federations, and camps.

How, in the age of thumb-tiring Snapchat-esque instant gratification, are teens attracted to helping others via the deliberative process of serious philanthropic giving?

The JTFN’s Holtzman explained that Jewish youth philanthropy programs started launching in the 1990s, cutting out its own piece from the secular youth philanthropy pie.

“Since the late-1990s, we have been able to think of Jewish youth philanthropy as a community, perhaps even a field,” Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett wrote in a 2007 report.

Unlike the stereotypical Millennials thinking only of themselves, Holtzman said, “Generation-Z is interested in changing the world, giving back, and using what they can to make a difference. Giving tzedakah and collective grantmaking is one great way to do that.”

And being steeped in the tenets of giving back and tikkun olam as part of b’nai mitzvah training helped spark a larger, national trend. Here is a snapshot.

In Portland, the OJCYF has grown from three teens in 2003 to 50 today, and it’s allotted $400,000 in its lifetime.

Julie Diamond, the executive director of the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation (OJCF), the organization that sponsors the OJCYF and the parent of two young women who’ve served on its board, said teens actively “want to prove wrong the notion that they are selfish and don’t follow through. They want to make a difference, Jewishly and generally.”

Jewish Community Youth Foundation of Princeton, N.J., started with 15 youths; today – 13 years later – about 180 middle and high schoolers go through its program annually. It has raised and given $700,000 since its founding, according to Celeste Albert, coordinator of teen programs for Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

Princeton’s JCYF has granted more than $40,000 to New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said Doug Edelson, HIAS’ director of institutional giving. An increasing number of Jewish teen philanthropists come to HIAS every year for site visits, Edelson said; the youth “absolutely” make a huge difference to the asylum seekers HIAS serves.

“We are as passionate about them as they are about us. These teens need to see how this plays out in the world, beyond the theoretical,” said Edelson, noting some of HIAS’ work has parallels with the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis in Europe.

And in Phoenix, its B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Program of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix has engaged more than 500 teenagers in 10 years and granted more than $150,000, reported Andrea Cohen, youth philanthropy director. The city’s Jewish Community Foundation Youth Philanthropy board recently split in two to better manage its increasing numbers.
“Our youth philanthropy board is considered a great activity to be engaged in,” Cohen said. “We really believe we’re growing this next generation of philanthropists in the Phoenix community.”

“More and more teens have opportunities to become engaged philanthropists as the field grows,” said the JTFN’s Holtzman. “In past few years, new programs have launched in Boston, Detroit, Toronto, New Orleans, and across Long Island.”

One key factor contributing to the rise in philanthropically engaged teens around the country is the Internet.

Sara Peller, associate executive director of Manhattan-based DOROT Inc., which assists the elderly homeless, has benefited from nearly $13,000 in grants from Princeton’s JCYF to support food expenses.

“I think the ‘Net plays a big part in showing people, in an easy way, ways to learn about all different kinds of organizations and their needs,” Peller said. “This is a great result from ‘Net use.”

Says Ron Lieber, author of “Opposite of Spoiled” and philanthropy reporter for “The New York Times”: “Teenagers have so much more access to information than they once did, so it’s easier for them to connect their own innately generous spirits with opportunities in the world to do good – for a living.”

And, trends indicate that as youth philanthropy programs grow and their programming becomes more streamlined, parents are stepping back as the older teens step up, mentoring and inspiring the next crop of young leaders.

Avi Meyer, a Portland high school senior off to Northeastern University next fall, who joined the youth foundation four years ago, said, “OJCYF has taught me the importance of being an active and informed philanthropist as an adult.

“I hope that the next generation of OJCYF board members have an enriched experience based partly on the fact that we leaders have helped to build upon the foundation of OJCYF,” Meyer said. “[N]ow we focus more on … improving the OJCYF for teens in the future.”

And, let’s be honest: With most teens, nearly everything is all about the social aspect. That figures very prominently, too, in teens’ choice to engage in youth philanthropy, remain engaged, and even promote it to their younger cohorts.

Said William Benthem de Grave of Princeton’s JCYF: “As my senior year comes to a close, there is one thing I will miss more than JCYF’s pizza: its community. Everyone that I have had the pleasure to meet over these past five years are like family to me – friends and advisors alike. Our meetings were fun and exciting and I always looked forward to seeing my friends who, if it weren’t for JCYF, I wouldn’t know.”

Thousands of miles away, high school senior Sarit Cahana of Portland’s OJCYF shared similar sentiments: “In the 8th grade, I got suggested to be in OJCYF. It seemed like a really interesting group to be a part of.” And, she added: “I also hope more teens will join and take as much out of this wonderful organization as they can.”