Parashat Ki Tavo: Spotlight on Jewish Teens
Stefanie Zelkind, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, serves as the Director of Youth Philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network. If you are interested in bringing Jewish youth philanthropy to your community and joining the Jewish TEEN Funders Network, please contact Stefanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You must not remain indifferent. Deuteronomy 22:3
Brightly colored posters lined the corridor of the high school. Conference registrants wore huge buttons on their shirts and backpacks. A banner hung over the auditorium stage: ONLY ELEPHANTS SHOULD WEAR IVORY! The year was 1987, and I was participating in my first activist campaign. I had attended rallies, joined in walk-a-thons, and collected money for various causes before as part of my family’s tikkun olam efforts, but this was different. I was 15 years old and going this one alone, without my parents or brother – I was finding my own way as an activist.
It seems odd, somehow, as I recall my entry into the world of activism that I was so concerned about ivory trade…I was never particularly passionate about animals, I had never been to Africa, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t own any ivory jewelry. So why did I jump at the chance to train as a student organizer in this campaign?
Because I was curious. I wanted to learn about issues beyond the pages of my textbooks. I wanted to be involved in something bigger than myself, and I craved a role with real responsibility. Newly aware of my privilege and power, I wanted to use them for good. I wanted to make a difference in the world.
That is to say, I was a teenager. At a new stage in their moral and cognitive development, teens are trading in their egocentrism for a greater awareness of those around them. They are grappling with moral issues and figuring out how they fit into the various communities of which they are a part. Operating with a keen sense of what’s fair and what’s not, teens are outraged when they learn of injustice. And if given a structure in which to operate, teens become passionate advocates for causes that resonate with them.
Such a structure is becoming increasingly available to Jewish teens throughout North America in the form of the Jewish community teen foundation. More than 60 Jewish communities across the country have created teen foundations over the past decade, in an effort to engage teens “where they are” and help them grow as Jewish leaders and givers. These programs offer teens an opportunity to take on significant responsibility as they engage in hands-on grantmaking through a Jewish lens.
While each community runs its teen foundation differently, a typical program might look something like this: Twenty teens join together, agreeing to serve as board members of the foundation. Each teen contributes $180 to the foundation’s grantmaking corpus, which is then matched 1:1 by a local donor, bringing the total pool to $7200. In some communities, as a result of additional fundraising and/or larger up-front contributions, teen foundations give away much more, with some granting well over $20,000 each year. Over the course of an academic year, the teens conduct a thorough grantmaking process: working together on mission statements, values clarification exercises, research on issues and organizations that address them, site visits to potential grantees, and review of grant proposals. They study Jewish texts and traditions related to philanthropy as they explore what “Jewish giving” means to them. They consider issues of impact and sustainability, and ultimately reach consensus on how to give away their money.
The Torah cautions us against indifference, and clearly, these teens are not indifferent. And it’s not only those involved in Jewish teen foundations; teens are heading up fundraising and awareness-raising campaigns, joining in advocacy efforts, and performing direct service here and abroad. Giving generously of their time and money, teens are some of the most thoughtful, dedicated, and active members of our community. We hear so often about the drop-off rate after Bar/Bar Mitzvah, how teens fall off the radar screen until they show up at a Hillel event or a birthright trip. But if we provide them with the right opportunities—opportunities to explore new issues, grapple with tough questions in a safe space, develop their own opinions and ideas, take on responsibility, and share in decision-making— teens will not only stick around, they’ll rise to positions of true leadership.
As we approach the New Year, let’s shine a light on our teens and their impressive work. And as we plan programs and create new initiatives, let’s recognize their passion and commitment to making a difference. While we adults may sometimes need to be reminded of our social responsibility, teens simply refuse to remain indifferent.