Shattering Stereotypes: The Newest Philanthropists

by Rachel Levenson

In “Rethinking American Jewish Giving,” Larry Moses leaves the reader with important questions about how to reconcile the differences between traditional concepts of tzedakah and the more modern American model of philanthropy.

Tzedakah, as Moses reminds us, is a commandment required of all Jews – even those who are receiving help. But most Jewish communal philanthropic organizations (such as federations) have typically operated like a club reserved for an elite group of people with money. The list of people making the most important communal decisions often reads like a “who’s-who” directory of individuals with impressive resumes and/or the potential to be big donors. Although young Jews are taught about their obligation to help others, Jewish communal grant making, which represents a significant component of the community’s fulfillment of tzedakah, has been essentially off limits to us as well as to other subsections of the community.

I belong to a youth philanthropy movement that grew, in part, as a response to the narrowness of the philanthropic process. Over the past decade, the movement has launched numerous programs across the country. Despite their programmatic differences, all are shattering the stereotype of what a philanthropist looks like and who gets to make the funding decisions in the Jewish community.

With so many ways for Jews to “pursue justice,” why does it matter for teens to be involved in Jewish communal philanthropy? It matters, first and foremost, because these programs demonstrate that one doesn’t need to be wealthy to make a difference through grant making. Participants learn smart and effective philanthropy — the many ways of leveraging and maximizing impact with the money they have or are able to raise. These programs also show that the community values input, not just from the rich or the “experienced,” but also from the voices of all who care about how the community allocates its resources. In fact, youth philanthropy programs are effective at drawing in Jews who previously felt disconnected from the community; they often speak to a different segment of the population, offering people a new way to connect to their heritage.

As new, young philanthropists, we are struggling with the very same questions that Moses raises. We spend our Sundays and after-school hours mulling over the issues of how to balance and prioritize local and global needs, Jewish and non-Jewish interests, immediate and long-term causes. We strive to infuse Jewish values into our giving – to create an effective, consensus-driven decision-making process, and to choose how to commit our limited time and resources to tikkun olam.

The young people engaged in philanthropy today will provide the “new thinking and strong leadership” to honor our “noble heritage,” embrace “promising possibilities,” and, we hope, continue to make the process ever more inclusive so that we, and others, can carry out our obligation of tzedakah through philanthropy.

Rachel Levenson is a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she is studying government and economics with a focus on African development. She began her philanthropic involvement in the seventh grade at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif. In high school, Levenson was an active member, alumna, and staff member of the Community Teen Foundations of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. She has also been involved in multiple national youth philanthropy boards. To mark her 16th birthday, she opened an endowment fund.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2011 issue of the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation about philanthropy and tzedakah.