The Camper As Philanthropist


If “urban camp” sounds like an oxymoron to you, then “urban farm” might as well.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the 16 teens on the philanthropy board at Passport NYC — where campers bunk in the air-conditioned dorms of the 92nd Street Y and participate in various internships around Manhattan — made Battery Urban Farm their inaugural grantee, awarding it $700.

Passport NYC was one of 20 Jewish overnight camps piloting a teen philanthropy project this summer with the Jewish Teen Funders Network. Each camp got leadership training and $1,500, to be allocated by campers to a nonprofit of their choice. (Passport NYC also awarded $50 to Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank and allocated the remaining $750 in the second session to Housing Works, a program that assists the homeless.)

“Our program intends to simulate the foundation experience for teens,” said Naomi Skop Richter, program associate at JTFN. The point of the program: “Teen empowerment.”

While this summer marked the project’s camp launch, Jewish teen foundations have been emerging in different venues over the past decade: since 2003, more than 50 Jewish teen foundations have been founded across North America in day schools, religious schools, synagogues, social service agencies, local Jewish federations and Jewish community foundations, according to JTFN. The network has also conducted smaller-scale projects at other camps, including six of the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps.

The JTFN, which chose the participating camps from 37 that applied, plans to expand the project next year, but has not yet decided by how much.

At Passport NYC, campers began the grant-making process by considering four organizations, narrowing down to two before selecting the 25-acre educational farm in Battery Park.

“We chose to give most of our money to the Battery Urban Farm because the farm had a very directed goal for the money,” explained 14-year-old camper, Gaby Santor. “They were going to use the money to pay two interns who had been volunteering at the farm for free. Our group liked the personal element, and we liked that our donation could fulfill a whole project.”

Recalling their site visit, Micaela Kaplan, another camper, explained, “When we visited the farm, we were first given a tour, where we got to eat fresh cucumbers and cherry tomatoes right off the vine.” They were then given the chance to ask detailed questions. Campers asked about the farm’s vision, organizational structure, budget and goals.

“It was cool that everyone in the group took the project so seriously,” said Kaplan. “You don’t always expect that, but I think everyone felt responsible for this project.”

The teen philanthropy project has both an educational and experiential element. Through webinars and workshops, campers first learn about communal responsibility, how organizations are structured and the Jewish value of tzedakah. They then proceed to review proposals from organizations, conduct site visits, and decide where to allocate the money based on a group consensus.

Kaplan, 16, who attended NYC because of interest in culinary arts (campers choose between five specialties: film, fashion, culinary, music industry or theater) described the process as “very rewarding.”

“There were so many factors we had to consider when choosing where to give the money,” she said. “We had to work as a team, listening carefully to each other’s opinions, while knowing the whole time that we were working towards something worthwhile. I was very proud of us.”

Dan Lange, program director at Passport NYC, shared Kaplan’s pride: “I’ve always been impressed with how insightful teens are when they are allowed to be,” he said. “Treat them like adults; they’ll act accordingly.”

While Passport NYC decided to support an organization that was not specifically Jewish, Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., another camp in the pilot program, considered Jewish-specific giving its main criteria.

“We intentionally chose Jewish organizations for the campers to choose from because its important for campers to know from us that giving to Jewish causes should be a priority,” said Drea Lear, assistant director. “Coming from the Midwest, many of our campers are one of only a few Jews in their town. We want to communicate the importance of assuming leadership within the Jewish world, so these campers can go back to their communities and lead.”

Eighty-four campers, split up into four group cohorts, chose between five organizations, including Nechama, the Jewish disaster response organization based in Minnesota and St. Paul, to the Jewish World Watch, a leader in the fight against genocide. With so many campers involved, Camp Herzl raised an additional $1.000 through community efforts to bolster the project. “We took this idea and ran with it,” said Drea.

Operating as a foundation, the four cohorts at Herzl wrote their own mission statements. The statement of Cohort Group One reads, “We want to assist in research development to help cure and better the lives of the ill. We do this by giving financial aid to organizations that comply with our values of honesty, determination and kindness.”

“At first, they couldn’t believe they were being trusted with real money,” said Elana Goldberg, assistant director of education at Herzl. “But they quickly stepped up to the responsibility, and embraced the role.”

Meanwhile, at Eden Village Camp, a Jewish environmental overnight camp in the Hudson Valley, teens decided to divide funds between Common Ground Farm, an educational farm modeling how to raise ecologically sound crops, and Fovea Gallery, nonprofit gallery in Beacon, N.Y., educating about humanitarian and social issues through photojournalism.

“It was like opening up the secret knowledge of how power works,” said Eden Village camper, Margalit, 13. “This project was one of the coolest things I ever did.”