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Jewish Teens Learn Jewish Giving, Jewish Values in New Initiatives

One of the newest trends in philanthropy and youth programming puts teens in charge, allowing them to decide where their money should go. “You know how kids are always saying, like, we don’t have a voice,” says Lia Volat, 18, of Great Barrington, Mass. “This definitely makes me feel powerful.”

Lia is expressing a view shared by hundreds of peers who have become involved in new teen philanthropy initiatives. Such programs have been sprouting across the United States, aimed at empowering Jewish youth and jump-starting their commitment to Jewish philanthropy.

The initiatives first target teens around the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. That marks both a teenager’s Jewish coming of age — and, in many cases, his or her first financial windfall.

Lia is one of about 20 board members of B’nai Tzedek, a program begun in 1997 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which serves western Massachusetts.

Board members, who must apply for the position, are required to raise a minimum of $100, which the foundation matches two-to-one for a communal grant-making pool.

Over the course of a school year, the group determines a mission statement and gives funds to Jewish groups that make relevant proposals.

B’nai Tzedek also provides teen programming on tzedakah and gives teens a personal endowment fund. A teen’s $125 contribution is matched with $125 by the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Mass., which in other cases requires a $10,000 minimum before it will advise a fund. The Grinspoon foundation kicks in another $250.

“I think the most exciting thing about it is really witnessing the power and intelligence of teens to really make a thoughtful impact on the world,” said B’nai Tzedek’s director, K’vod Wieder. “I think they actually have insights that would do really well on adult boards, and we’re going to explore that next year.”

Wieder divides his time between directing B’nai Tzedek and coaching communities nationwide in replicating the program.

Since 1999, 26 Jewish communities have adopted the program through their local federations, Wieder said, and another 10 teen philanthropy programs have sprung up independently.

The Jewish Funders Network has been pushing the trend. The group sponsored a session on teen philanthropy at its annual conference in Baltimore last week that showcased B’nai Tzedek and the Rockville, Md.-based Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute, both pioneers in the field.

At its conference next spring in Denver, the Jewish Funders Network will co-sponsor the first teen philanthropy conference, to be held simultaneously.

Other cosponsors are the United Jewish Communities — the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations — the Grinspoon Foundation and the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund.

Teen philanthropy aims to counter another trend in which younger Jews increasingly donate their dollars to non-Jewish organizations, according to Eytan Hammerman, director of the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute.

Both B’nai Tzedek and the philanthropy institute integrate text study to help teenagers understand charitable giving in a Jewish context.

Philanthropy is becoming a hip thing for teens to do, Hammerman said.

“If you look at them based on what they’re wearing and how they’re sitting when it’s snack time, you’d never guess that they would be about to engage in a discussion at the level or even above the level of those discussions that our most generous philanthropists engage in every day — that is, how to best maximize our resources to ensure the vitality and strength of our community and to show that Jews care about the world.”

The five-year-old philanthropy institute, which began with 20 teens, has quintupled in size.

Participants donate between $200 to $500, and the institute matches those gifts.

Sunday marked the end of a yearlong course of monthly meetings and site visits. The group donated $70,000 to 25 organizations, most of them Jewish.

Among the recipients were the Abuyudaya Jewish tribe of Uganda, an Abraham Fund program to teach Arabic in Israeli Jewish elementary schools and the Association for Safe International Road Travel.

The group has published a guide that it has distributed to some 40 institutions, including high schools, synagogues and federations.

“I think it’s going to make me not only more interested but also more educated when it comes to making decisions” about giving, said Kerry Brodie, 14, who is on the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute’s board of directors.

For Kerry, a student at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, the experience illuminated the needs of people outside the Jewish world. The institute encourages donations to both Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

“I did consider Jewish causes more beforehand, and now I realize people are people and they all need the money,” she said.

For Lia, the imperative to give only to Jewish causes felt limiting at first. But she began to realize that she could make a profound impact through focused giving.

For example, after seeing the film “Hotel Rwanda,” she decided to direct money to a Jewish agency helping to resettle Somalian families.

Though Lia said she’ll consider both Jewish and non-Jewish charities in the future, participating in the B’nai Tzedek program “strengthened my appreciation for the Jewish community,” she said.

For B’nai Tzedek board member Adam Sinkin, 15, the experience drove home the importance of tzedakah.

“We learn so much about tzedakah and how it relates to being Jewish,” he said. “Now I think Judaism is living a good life with the world.”

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