SF Jewish Teens Take a Stand against Ebola in Liberia

SF JTeensBy Lom Friedman

In May 2014, a group of 23 Bay Area Jewish high school students was on a mission to make a difference. They had raised almost $40,000, researched and interviewed nonprofit organizations, and selected key projects that lift up at-risk youth locally and globally. Over seven months, through the Jewish Teen Foundations, they learned the essentials of strategic philanthropy, culminating in choosing five organizations to fund.

Then, suddenly, a year of thoughtful board planning, community organizing, and hope ran right into the largest Ebola outbreak in history – and the plan changed for one grant allocated to a project in Liberia.

Each year, 100 teens are selected by Jewish Teen Foundations (JTF), a program of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, for the opportunity to become effective philanthropists. In 2014, that group of 23 local students focused on serving at-risk youth and partnered with World ORT to sponsor a vocational training program in Liberia. Inspired by Maimonides’ teaching to give a job or gift so that someone will, ultimately, no longer need tzedakah, the teens wanted to make a long-term impact for Liberian youths.

Six months after making the grant to World ORT, the nonprofit informed JTF that the Ebola epidemic had shut down transportation routes in western Liberia, preventing the vocational instructor and basic supplies from reaching the community. Offering full transparency, ORT offered to return the grant.

As a youth-led program, JTF turned the question of what to do back to the young philanthropists who had raised the funds and made the original grant. Frank discussion and reevaluation ensued.

The tragedy of Ebola revealed a key ingredient of effective philanthropy: relationships. Relationships between dedicated board members, between foundations and nonprofits, and between nonprofits and the communities they serve.

Liberia had new pressing needs, in addition to its old ones. World ORT, which has had field staff in the country for over 30 years, listened to the communities and proposed three options for their philanthropic partners in the Bay Area:

  1. Train dozens of new, youth health promoters to teach Ebola prevention and containment in neighboring, remote and isolated communities;
  2. Invest in a different vocational training program that would specifically serve families who have adopted any of the thousands of new Ebola orphans – i.e. teaching soap and bread making, and providing support in starting their own businesses – in order to provide stable income and generate two vital commodities desperately needed to address communicable disease and malnutrition; or,
  3. Return the grant for the new JTF board to reallocate elsewhere.

Celeste S. Angus, ORT’s Director of International Cooperation, joined a videoconference with JTF alumni and answered their detailed questions about the communities involved, the Ebola epidemic, ORT’s previous experience running such programs, and their measures and methods of evaluation. Having gathered all the information, teens recommenced the consensus process they had practiced in their years serving on the JTF board.

In the end, the teens opted to fund the soap and bread making business training program for its connection to their mission (at-risk youth) and their Jewish values (caring for our most vulnerable and Maimonides’ principle of long-term solutions to help people help themselves). They all agreed that it was a terrible situation, but they savored the sweetness of reuniting and the meaningfulness of their continued tikkun olam work together.

Elsewhere, JTF alumni continue to apply the skills they gain in the JTF program: aiding 7th grade tzedakah programs in shuls and day schools, training college sorority sisters on the art of elevator pitches, chairing their Hillel’s fundraiser, and starting their own nonprofits. Long after their program has finished, their work as philanthropists and tzadikim goes on.

Lom Friedman is the Director of Youth Philanthropy for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

For more information on the Jewish Teen Foundations or to apply, visit: www.JewishTeenFoundations.org; 2015-16 JTF Applications are due May 17.