NEW YORK, May 15 (JTA) – Rachel Katz already knew about tzedekah.
But during her seven months of involvement in a unique project called No Small Change, she learned that philanthropy is about more than just dropping some change into a tzedakah box.
“In Hebrew school, I never knew where the money for tzedakah was going,” says Katz, 18, of New Jersey. “Here, I was part of the decision-making process of giving money.”
No Small Change was a New York-based experiment in philanthropy that involved seven 20- and 30- something women and six teen-aged girls, who met over the past half-year to discuss issues linking Judaism, women and philanthropy.
With the help of money collected at a feminist seder hosted by Ma’yan, a Jewish feminist group here, the group last week donated $11,000 to Nisan, a program that bolsters cooperation between Jewish and Arab teen-aged girls in Israel.
Nisan “is a small organization, and the money No Small Change gave” could make a difference in funding its programs, says Susan Sapiro, a member of No Small Change who works at Ma’yan. “Also, with what’s going on in Israel, this program continues to support the coexistence of Arabs and Jews.”
The adult members of the group will donate additional money in honor of the girls to the Women’s Empowerment Fund of the American Jewish World Service – which helps fund programs for girls in developing countries – and to Girls Inc., a U.S.-based program designed to empower young girls.
No Small Change had its roots in 1998, when longtime Jewish philanthropist Barbara Dobkin launched a program to teach adult women about philanthropy.
The women discussed the role money played in their lives and how they had been making their philanthropic decisions.
In addition, they discussed the responsibilities involved in managing their own money, and the power a group can achieve when individuals work together.
It was intense,” journalist Sarah Blustain said of the first meeting in 1998, which Dobkin facilitated. “It was eye-opening that money is so important, but no one talked about it as intensely as the group did. It was so new, like visiting the moon.”
After a year, the women had collected some $800, which they donated to Avodah – The Jewish Service Corps. They then decided to add teen-aged girls to the group.
During 2000, the women recruited girls from day schools, synagogues, and Jewish community centers in New York and New Jersey.
“You have to be a unique young person to decide to give up your time for tzedakah,” says Merrill Zack, a 29-year-old special project administrator for the National Council of Jewish Women.
Ma’yan, the Jewish Fund for Justice and the JCC in Manhattan served as the group’s sponsors.
Once No Small Change formed last November, the women and girls met monthly, learning about social activism and the Jewish value of helping those less fortunate.
They also learned about budgeting and finding out how different groups spend their money, giving the teens useful skills in a field that historically has been dominated by men.
“I never knew where my parents donated their money to and I didn’t care, but now I care what organizations are out there,” says Amanda Rautenberg, 16, of New York City.
The group also winnowed down the list of possible recipients for its money by focusing on groups that promote values they back, such as compassion and empowering women.
“I thought the teen-agers would be uncomfortable talking” about money, “but these girls were clear and deliberate about who they considered to be the recipient,” Zack says.
Each participant also contributed $5 into a central fund at each meeting. Together, the women and teens collected $1,000. They received a huge boost this spring when the women at the Ma’yan seder pledged an additional $10,000.
The founder of Nisan says the grant is particularly gratifying because of its origin.
The donation “is a great honor for us. We get lots of grants from foundations and older individuals, but to get a grant from teenagers is tremendous, it is the core of what we try to do – help young women with decision- making,” Calanit Dovere says. “We plan to support leadership development programs with the money.”
While there were frustrations, the experiment – which may or may not be repeated – was a success, both the teens and the women say.
No Small Change “was an opportunity to give these girls a learning environment I didn’t get when I was a teen-ager. $11,000 is a big responsibility,” says Stephanie Zelkind, the national field director for the Coalition on the Environment & Jewish Life. “It felt daunting, but going through it with the group felt really good.”