Allowing Kids To Make The Decisions
Wed, 03/12/2008
Special To The Jewish Week

It’s not surprising that a committee at UJA-Federation of New York is now in the process of reviewing grant proposals, looking at agency budgets and visiting those same agencies. It’s the sort of work that typifies the allocation of money by any large charity, be it federation or another organization.

But what makes this group of volunteers so unique is the age of its 15 members, none of whom has yet reached adulthood. The volunteers range from 14 to 16, and all are participants in a program known as “Explore a Mitzvah,” now in its second year. Acting together, the teens decide which area of need they would like to support, raise the funds to do so and allocate specific amounts, said Joy Rosenthal, who staffs the program.

The group has already chosen to support projects that build Jewish identity, said Sam Silverman, 15, who added that the decision came after much thought and much discussion. “We kind of made a list of things where our money would help” — a list that eventually included health-related programs, programs for the elderly and programs for indigent Jews.

Another participant, 15-year-old Hannah Gross, said the teens finally chose Jewish identity as their theme after recognizing that the group owed its very existence to the Jewish identity of its members. “We wanted to give other children the same feeling,” she said, “and we wanted to help people our age.”

The yearlong program also includes an exploration of tzedakah and how the subject is viewed in the Jewish community, Rosenthal said. But the most important element, according to the teens, seems to be their latitude, allowing them to take ownership of their decisions.

“I’ve learned how everything works,” Silverman said, referring to the allocation process. He added that, while federation officials often guide the participants, “we’re the ones who get to make the decisions.”

“Explore a Mitzvah” is designed largely for the alumni of another program, established five years ago, called “Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah,” said Rosenthal, who also staffs that endeavor. That program, which currently involves as many as 100 families, links children nearing bar or bat mitzvah age to philanthropic projects that reflect their interests. The children raise money for their projects in a variety of ways, including suggesting donations from their bar or bat mitzvah guests and asking for contributions rather than gifts.

One difference between the programs is that children involved in “Give a Mitzvah” are acting on their own, for the most part, while those in “Explore a Mitzvah” raise their money and make their decisions as a group. That became apparent at the program’s annual fundraising event, which took place earlier this month and was dubbed a “PB&J-a-Thon.”

Gathered around a conference table at federation headquarters, more than a dozen teens made an estimated 300 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, each of which was drew a pledged donation from a friend or relative, just as each mile draws in a charitable walk-a-thon. (The sandwiches themselves were later given to a kosher-meal program sponsored by the Educational Alliance, a federation agency.)

Among those making sandwiches were Sam Silverman and his 13-year-old brother, Adam, the group’s fundraising chairmen and both alumni of “Give a Mitzvah.” Sam’s project in “Give a Mitzvah,” for which he raised $35,000, involved the creation of a computer center in Rehovoth, Israel, for Ethiopian immigrants. For his project, funded to the tune of $41,000, Adam, a lover of sports, helped establish a tennis program for Ethiopian olim in Neveh Yaacov, a community near Jerusalem.

Others at the event included Hannah Gross and Rebecca Schwartz, 16, also graduates of “Give a Mitzvah.” For her project, Hannah volunteered in a pediatric hematology and oncology clinic of Mount Sinai Medical Center, where she organized parties for the children, played with them and simply talking to them “about what they were going through,” she said.  Rebecca created a computer center at the Hebrew Educational Society, a community center in Canarsie that serves a diverse population, including Russian-speaking immigrants.

The genesis of both “Explore a Mitzvah” and “Give a Mitzvah” dates back more than five years ago, when several parents, most of them leaders in the Jewish community, began thinking of ways to infuse meaning into the bar or bat mitzvah, an occasion they believed had lost some of its original purpose.

“It seemed to me it should be more than just reading the Torah portion, more than just the celebration around it, more than just the gifts,” said Erica Schwartz, Rebecca’s mother and a resident of the Upper East Side.

The contingent of parents brought their concerns to Laura Spitzer, federation’s associate executive director, and they brainstormed together, leading to “Give a Mitzvah.” The newly created “Explore a Mitzvah,” open to any child of post-bar or bat mitzvah age, is an effort to keep the teens involved in philanthropy as they grow older, Spitzer said.

Both programs are part and parcel of a growing trend in the American-Jewish community, said Stefanie Zelkind, director of youth philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network, an association of family foundations and individual donors. “We know of over 60 teen-philanthropy programs throughout this country and Canada,” she said, adding that many, if not most, of the programs have come into existence in the past eight years. The programs are affiliated with a variety of institutions, including federations, community foundations, synagogues and boards of Jewish education.

Discussing UJA-Federation’s programs, Hannah Gross said the project she designed through “Give a Mitzvah” made her bat mitzvah “a really special experience,” partly because she spoke of the project in her d’var Torah. She joined “Explore a Mitzvah,” she said, “because I wanted to continue my philanthropy.”