Transforming a Community
By Lindsay Ganci
[Intro: This article is Part 1 in a series about the long-term impact of Jewish teen philanthropy. Jewish teen foundations have successfully engaged a new generation of philanthropists, with thousands of teens giving away millions of grant dollars to nonprofit organizations while learning Jewish values. As part of this series, the Jewish Teen Funders Network releases “Jewish Teen Philanthropy: What is the Long-Term Impact?” a report that features program data and alumni testimonials highlighting the powerful results of participating in Jewish teen philanthropy programs. This report follows the release of “Where Did the Money Go?” JTFN’s biennial survey of Jewish teen foundations’ grantmaking activities.
As part of our mission to create, connect, and support Jewish teen philanthropy programs, JTFN presents this four-part series, which draws upon the experiences of program leaders, staff, and alumni and their families.]
Three years ago, our congregation was asked to participate in a pilot program through the Jewish Teen Funders Network, called Stepping Up: Long Island. Were we interested in piloting a Jewish teen philanthropy program at our Reform congregation with our teens? Sure, we guessed so. Did we think that this new model for engagement might motivate a small group of our members, and possibly even engage new members? Sure, we didn’t see why not. Were we willing to experiment, get creative, and innovate? Sure, absolutely!
Throughout the past three years, our POWTY Foundation, the Jewish teen philanthropy program we created at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, became a central, successful program offered as one of our POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth) youth programming opportunities. What started as a 10 person monthly gathering of intellectually curious, tzedek seeking teenagers around a small round table has quickly grown to be a thriving, expanding program that attracts teens involved in our youth program, and many who have never been before. For our community, creating a program that allowed our teens to pursue tzedek through the study of philanthropy didn’t just help the community around us. It helped our own community in a deep and impactful way.
The 10th and 11th graders in our POWTY Foundation commit to meeting 12 times per year (approximately once every three weeks) for either 1.5 or 2 hour sessions. Our teens study Jewish teachings and philosophies as they relate to giving and tzedakah, and consider the Jewish values they believe are important to their lives, and to our collective work. Together, they learn about areas of need on Long Island, and write a mission statement that they use as a filter through which to view dozens of grant proposals submitted to our foundation from across Long Island. Our teens vote on their top organizations to visit, and together, we take our learning on the road and get to see firsthand how nonprofit organizations are changing lives across our community. Our teens fundraise as a group to increase our grantmaking pool, sharing the great work they are doing, and spreading excitement that engages parents, siblings, family members, friends and others in our community. At the end of the year, our POWTY Foundation hosts a celebratory check ceremony, where parents, friends, family and community members join together with grant recipients from the Foundation’s choice organizations to celebrate the difference being made through philanthropy and learning. This year, we were proud to host a Shabbat check ceremony celebration, where 100 POWTY Foundation board members, family members, friends, synagogue staff and grant recipients all joined together to appreciate how we’ve learned from one another through a year of teen philanthropy.
As POWTY has grown and expanded throughout my five years at The Community Synagogue, so have the programs and opportunities we are lucky to provide our children and adolescents. Programming for 4-6th graders has boomed, and our 7th graders spend their year looking towards what’s next on their Jewish journeys – not just the end of their formal religious school education. Our 8-12th graders have many options for engagement, and our calendar of events throughout the school year is differentiated, diverse and guided by our values and goals for helping Jewish teens live meaningful Jewish lives both with us, and once they leave home. The addition of an academic, experiential, exploratory program like the POWTY Foundation has given our teenage participants one more way to engage with Judaism in our community, given our younger members one more program to look forward to participating in, and luckily, has also served as a springboard towards new programming, inspired by its success.
Thanks to a generous donation from Marc, Sharon and Ali Sussman, in honor of Ruth Sussman and in memory of Max Sussman, we will be launching the POWTY Tikkun Team, a monthly experiential learning program for our 8th and 9th graders focusing on the pursuit of tzedek through hands on tikkun olam learning and projects, which will provide a strong connection and progression into our Foundation program. Our monthly meetings will alternate between discussion and action, first learning about the issue areas of need on Long Island that our Foundation also learns about, and then using our hands and hearts to help support the organizations addressing those needs.
When teens are empowered by their opportunities, they rise to meet them with passion, commitment, and honor. As Jewish educators, it is our holy obligation and privilege to seek out and share these chances, so that our learners can find meaning in Jewish life that will guide them not just when they are with us, but also when they are not. Continuing to reimagine how we can share Judaism with our youth is the recipe for our continuity, vitality, and joy. Jewish teen philanthropy has been a powerful way for us to do just so at The Community Synagogue. It has deeply impacted the culture of our youth community at our congregation, and has been a successful model around which new engagement models and successful programs have been born. May I suggest you try it? You never know how the challenge may result in bright reward.
Lindsay Ganci received her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Muhlenberg College and a Master’s degree in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She recently earned her Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults from HUC-JIR, and was named a 2015 Young Pioneer Award recipient from the Jewish Education Project. Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information on programs such as Stepping Up: Long Island, visit JTFN’s Initiatives page.