Youth Philanthropy Grows Up


Rachel Rosenfeld opened up a school in Cambodia. Danny Schwartz donated kitchens to six Ethiopian families in Israel. And Becky Weinberg organized “Becky’s Closet,” donating princess-like dresses to needy bat mitzvah girls in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

The common denominator? All three are New York Jews under the age of 18.

Youth philanthropy is nothing new. Bnei mitzvah projects, in particular, were first popularized decades ago by the likes of Danny Siegel. But in recent years, there’s been a surge of teen-oriented philanthropy projects. More Jewish teens in the New York area are giving more money — but they’re also staking a personal claim in where their money ends up.

Youth philanthropy, in a sense, has grown up.

“Youth philanthropy is growing; virtually every youth group has some sort of project,” confirms Richard Marker, a senior fellow at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy who teaches grant-making and runs his own firm, Marker Goldsmith Advisors, specializing in advising philanthropists. This follows a national trend, he says. A 2006 study by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and Bank of America found that 70 percent of high net-worth households discuss philanthropy with children and 35 percent allow their children to participate.

In the Jewish world, there are approximately 60 active youth philanthropy programs across North America, says Stefanie Zelkind, director of youth philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network. The JFN is currently conducting a national “demographic scan” to determine the number of youth philanthropy programs, how much money is being raised and which organizations teens are funding. “It’s a pretty transformative experience,” she says. “It’s the first time many teens feel they are taken seriously.”

For young people, in particular, tzedakah projects are an effective way for parents to teach their kids the value of money. “How many Jewish kids do you know that have to save up for an iPod?” Marker asks. “A lot of younger people have never touched money. Essentially, money has no meaning.” In organizing a tzedakah project, teens confront limits and the need for resource allocation, often for the first time, he says. “Suddenly, teenagers realize that there are decisions they have to make about money.”

A School of Her Own

A stomach illness may have prevented Rachel Rosenfeld from attending school for a year. But it didn’t stop the 17-year-old from opening a school in Cambodia. Nor did it prevent her from traveling to the Southeast Asian country to attend the opening of the R.S. Rosenfeld School two weeks ago.

Rosenfeld, an active member of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, N.Y., raised $52,000 to establish a primary school serving 316 students in the small village of Srah Khvav in rural Cambodia. In addition to offering naming rights to donors, she designed T-shirts with smiley faces and the tagline “Put a roof over their heads,” which she sold for $20. She also received support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which contributed $10,000 and $13,000, respectively.

Rosenfeld says she was inspired by a series of articles that appeared last year in the New York Times about the plight of teenage girls in Cambodia, written by Nicholas Kristof.

“I discovered that girls were getting sold into prostitution in Cambodia, and that the percentage lessens dramatically when they attend school,” Rosenfeld says. “I decided since I can’t go to school, maybe I should build a school.”

At the time, Rosenfeld was home from school due to what was eventually diagnosed as post-viral gastroparesis, a painful digestive disorder. She logged onto the American Assistance for Cambodia Web site and discovered that with just $13,000, she could build a school. She then mailed hundreds of donation requests for extra amenities — bookcases, water filters, generators — for which she would provide naming rights and create plaques.

The additional funding secured the school five computers, Internet access and a victory garden, allowing students to grow vegetables they will eat during the day.

“My family and I put a lot of time into it,” Rosenfeld says. “There were lots of paper cuts and plenty of Excel spreadsheets.”

The opening ceremony in Cambodia was unlike anything she could have imagined, she says. “The kids were so polite and grateful for everything,” she says. “They all lined up and were clapping. It was just amazing.”

Accompanied by her parents, grandparents, sister and brother, Rosenfeld visited the classrooms and handed each student a packet of school supplies, including a crisp dollar bill. “The dollar signifies a new beginning for each of you,” she remarked in her opening ceremony speech. “Please spend or save this special dollar as you wish.”

Rachel’s charitable nature is nothing new, says her mother, Lisa. “She would often help me with fundraising events and participates each year in midnight runs through the temple, distributing clothing to men’s shelters along with her brother and sister.”

The family is extremely proud of her. “It was hard for her to have to repeat a year of school,” Lisa Rosenfeld says. “But the fact that something good came out of something that was bad; that’s just a real turnaround.”

Love of Cooking

While other kids were obsessed with cartoons, Danny Schwartz grew up glued to the Food Network. So it was only natural that when the 13-year-old was searching for a bar mitzvah project, he chose to help others cook. Schwartz donated $36,500 to Meir Panim, which distributes food to the poor, to renovate kitchens of six Ethiopian families in the Kiryat Malachi neighborhood of Israel, as part of the UJA-Federation of New York’s “Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah” program.

The Schwartz family traveled to Israel for winter break. While there, they met with a father and son who had just received a brand-new oven. “They didn’t speak Hebrew or English, but I could tell how happy they were,” says Schwartz. “It was kind of amazing to see how much we could do with a donation.”

In 2003, Danny’s mother, Erica, a longtime UJA volunteer and board member, helped launch the “Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah” program. “Each year, more and more families were approaching the UJA with a bar-mitzvah-aged child, wanting to do some kind of bnei mitzvah project,” she says. “It made sense to institutionalize the program so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel.”

In the last year, the number of teen philanthropy projects supported by the UJA-Federation of New York has more than doubled. And in the past five years, teens have contributed $1.5 million. “We look at what kids are passionate about,” says Lori Kolinsky, who oversees the project. “We then turn that passion into philanthropy.”

Parents bring their bar or bat mitzvah-aged child for a face-to-face meeting with UJA staff members, who then match a project to the child’s interests. The child puts an insert into the invitation asking guests to donate money to a specified project in lieu of gifts. Others promise to earmark a portion of their gifts to support their project.

Danny’s older sister, Rebecca, was among the first participants. She enjoyed computers and the Internet, and therefore donated $60,000 to create a computer center at the Hebrew Educational Society in Canarsie. “With Rebecca, it was more of a novel concept,” says Erica Schwartz. “When Danny saw what Rebecca had done, he was already thinking, ‘When it’s my turn, what will my project be?’”

Giving That ‘Princess’ Feel

Becky Weinberg was always “into fashion.” She dreams of editing a fashion magazine or becoming a name-brand designer. Choosing the perfect dress for her bat mitzvah last April was a serious sport.

“It was turquoise and sparkly, tight on top and then it went out,” Weinberg says. The dress made her feel special, she says. “I wanted every girl to feel that they had the perfect dress.”

UJA-Federation of New York helped match her with the Met Council’s Machson Mobile, a clothing distribution center on wheels. Weinberg purchased 50 dresses in a variety of sizes and styles using the $5,000 she had raised. She then rented out a community center in Canarsie, arranged the dresses on racks, and spent a day helping needy girls pick out dresses for their upcoming bat mitzvah ceremonies.

“It made me happy that they were so excited,” she says. “They were hugging and kissing me. It wasn’t awkward at all.”