The future of Jewish philanthropy just may lie in the hands of people like Rachel Levenson.
A 16-year-old junior at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif., Rachel became a philanthropist at age 13. The school required its seventh graders to research a local charity and write a personal essay about it. At the end of the year, students had to pool their bar and bat mitzvah money to allocate at least $800 to each of the charities.
In high school Rachel became a member of the Peninsula Jewish Community Teen Foundation. With the foundation’s other 21 members, she helped collect some $40,000 during her freshman and sophomore years through personal donations and fund-raising events and matching funds from local philanthropies.
Throughout each year, the foundation met to discuss the logistics of allocating money to charities. They then sent requests from a number of charities that foundation board members thought were worthy. At the end of each year, after researching 52 proposals, they made up to nine grants of up to $7,500 each.
Rachel now is an alumna adviser to the foundation. She also was elected national treasurer of the United Synagogue Youth s International Social Action Committee, which will allocate some $360,000 raised across the country by USY members.
She also recently collected $5,000 to start her own personal endowment fund. As she begins looking at colleges, she wants to find one where she can major in philanthropy.
This has opened us up to the problems of the world, Rachel said of her teen philanthropy experience in a phone interview with JTA. It s made us realize that teens can make a difference in the world if we put our minds to it.
The idea of Jewish youth philanthropy has been around for a while. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, for instance, has been using its B nei Tzedek initiative since 1998 to set up teens in Western Massachusetts with their own small endowment funds, from which they can allocate money to charity.
The Jewish Funders Network has been pushing the effort in recent years.
Some 50 Jewish youth philanthropy initiatives have cropped up around the country, according to JFN. In April 2006, JFN set up the Jewish Teen Funders Network, or JTFN, to act as a central clearinghouse for such initiatives and provide professional training for those working with them.
Among the initiatives are Jewish youth foundations like Rachel s in Palo Alto. Others are run through Jewish day schools that require seventh-grade students in lieu of giving their friends bar and bat mitzvah gifts to donate money to a pool that they allocate to different charities.
These funds collectively garner about $1.2 million a year, according to JFN, and the organization would like to see the number of programs grow, believing that philanthropy is an effective way of teaching the next generation about Jewish peoplehood.
It has allocated up to $300,000 to be paid out over the next three years to form 10 more programs, the organization announced this week at JFN’s annual conference, which drew 350 philanthropists and heads of Jewish foundations to Atlanta. Along with its teen affiliate, JFN will give communities $10,000 grants for up to three years to form such programs.
The grants will be given to communities that are starting new groups for teens aged 13-18 or that want to form new branches of existing teen foundations. The grants are contingent on the communities’ ability to engage local philanthropists to provide matching funds.
That’s a key component, JFN President Mark Charendoff said, because teens need to see that adults are trusting them with their own money and with decisions on difficult topics that have real consequences.
We are giving them our money and saying, You ve got to make the decisions and those decisions are going to stand.’ We are proving to them that we take their decisions seriously, Charendoff said. Then they have to struggle with their peers and decide who gets preference: Is it children in Darfur or hungry people in Beersheba? Is it Jewish education in Columbus, Ohio, where they live, or social services somewhere else?
Where other attempts to engage the young generation have failed, Charendoff thinks philanthropy initiatives can succeed because they’re so hands-on.
In the end, it’s not really about how much money the teens give out, JTFN Chairwoman Barbara Lubran said, but about teaching them the fundamentals of philanthropy.
How effective such programs is unclear, because the phenomenon is too young to tell how many teens move on to larger philanthropic roles when they’re older, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which studies Jewish philanthropy.
If the goal of these programs is to teach young people about philanthropy, they are probably going to be very successful over time, he said. It’s something that needs to be taught. Sometimes you can absorb it through osmosis. Other times you have to teach people to be generous and charitable, and how to do it even if they have the impulse to do it. Teaching them is a great idea. The question is how well do you teach these teens these values over time.