On Long Island, the b’nai mitzvah project has found an older sibling: philanthropy. Decades after community service became a standard part of the American bar and bat mitzvah experience, rabbis and educators are trying build on those earlier lessons in empathy by teaching Jewish teens how to make grants to nonprofits.
In partnership with the Jewish Funders Network, a service organization for philanthropists, Long Island synagogues and other organizations are creating about 10 foundations of 20 to 22 teens each, said Stefanie Zelkind, who runs JFN’s teen philanthropy arm. The program will start in the fall.
With a pot of at least $1,000 — $500 from an anonymous donor through the JFN, and $500 from the sponsoring synagogue or other organization — each group of teens will form a board, devise a mission statement, study Jewish texts on charity and learn about poverty and other social problems on Long Island. They will then possibly do more fundraising, visit potential grantees, decide who should get what and cut the checks.
“It’s an important thing, to create a new generation of givers,” said Rabbi Susie Moskowitz of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, which is participating in the project. She sees the philanthropy program as an extension of her work with sixth graders and their families, which involves volunteering, and with seventh graders, in which the students begin to think about which nonprofit organizations they would want to support.
The program does not require the selection of specifically Jewish recipients, Zelkind said: “We think it is a valuable conversation to have: What does Jewish giving mean? What is a Jewish organization?”
The teens who will participate in the program probably already have significant hands-on community service experience due to the prevalence of volunteering requirements in schools and synagogues, Zelkind said.
“We explain that this is the other side of the coin,” she said. “We present philanthropy as a complement, or parallel process.”
That’s as it should be, said Dwight Burlingame, a professor and director of academic programs at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Ideally, he said, young people volunteer on a regular basis before they give money because that direct experience helps them figure out which causes are most important to them. It also tends to correlate more strongly with adult charitable activity than donations alone.
Teen philanthropy started in the early 1990s in Michigan with support from the Kellogg Foundation, and there are 52 Jewish teen foundations nationally, Zelkind said, adding that the concept arrived relatively late in the New York area.
“Given the size and scope of the community here, there wasn’t one agency that was a natural gathering place,” she said. “There just wasn’t a leader to launch it.”
A similar UJA-Federation of New York program, in which 27 Manhattan high school students each contributed $180 and then raised further funds from friends and family, gathered six times this past year to hash out philanthropic priorities and select beneficiaries, said Sheila Devore, director of the Center for Youth Philanthropy and Leadership.
That group, the Teen Philanthropic Leadership Council, ended its first year of operation on May 30 by distributing about $53,000 to six grantees, including $13,000 to Yemin Orde, a youth village in northern Israel, and $6,000 to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to support its efforts in India.