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Jewish Journal

Teens tackle tzedakah dollars

by Julie G Fax

July 26, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Courtney Teller knows all about giving. The high school sophomore won the community service award at Archer School for Girls, and her grandmother, Annette Shapiro, is a legendary volunteer and philanthropist in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

But it was the parking situation at a playground for the disabled that gave Courtney a new appreciation for the potential impact of tzedakah.

As part of her participation in the Community Youth Foundation -- a program of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles where teens allocate $10,000 in grants -- Teller and her friends visited Shane's Inspiration, a West L.A. playground for the disabled. While she was moved by the hordes of kids, both abled and disabled, playing on the rubber-padded, accessibly designed equipment, the fact that it took her 30 minutes to find parking signaled to her that demand had outpaced supply.

"It was a Saturday afternoon and it was packed -- you couldn't get near it," Teller said. "It was important to me that I saw where we could really make a difference."

It was her impassioned plea, in part, that convinced the group of 11 teens to award Shane's Inspiration a $1,000 grant to support their expansion of similar projects.

Teller and her peers are among a growing number of teens getting involved in the giving -- not just doing -- end of community service. Youth foundations and individual teen endowments across the country are empowering teens of all economic levels to make values-based and technically informed decisions about what is worthy of their support.

Jewish teens have given away an estimated $1 million dollars -- most of it community money, a token amount of it their own -- since these philanthropic training camps began to emerge in scattered Jewish communities about 10 years ago.

In the last year energy has been building, and there are about 50 such projects. Last spring, the Jewish Funders Network co-sponsored the first-ever Jewish Youth Philanthropy conference in Denver, after about five years of informal networking among teens and professionals. The conference attracted more than 150 teens, and a follow-up conference for professionals this spring attracted dozens. A Web site launched at the first conference, jphilanthropy.com, run by Jewish Family and Life Media, received 200,000 hits in its first year.

After the youth philanthropy conference last spring -- which overlapped with the high-powered Jewish Funders Network conference -- several donors backed the establishment of the Jewish Teen Funders Network to serve as a central address for these programs. This year, the network is considering proposals to award 10 communities matching grants of $30,000 to set up new youth foundation programs.

"I think a very strong motivation behind these programs is the idea of providing a hands-on, values-driven educational opportunity for teenagers that provides an alternative to Hebrew school," said Stefanie Zelkind, who runs the Jewish Teen Funders Network, an arm of the Jewish Funders Network. "The general area of service learning and tikkun olam resonates a lot with teenagers, and this is a program that really engages teens very seriously and gives them a lot of responsibility."

The experience also demands serious work from the teens.

Teller and her peers spent three Sundays learning the mechanics of giving -- how to read the financials of a nonprofit, how to conduct the research and what questions to ask to assess an organization's efficacy and the impact of a potential donation.

"We were the ones doing everything," Teller said.

This is the fourth group of teens -- all of them children and grandchildren of philanthropic families associated with the Jewish Community Foundation -- that the Community Youth Foundation has entrusted to disburse $10,000.

They begin by brainstorming about problems and organizations that can achieve solutions. They each research several organizations, and then narrow the list down to organizations worthy of site visits -- an important step for a generation that relies heavily on the web for information.

After the visits, the teens gather to debate each organization's comparative merits, and negotiate with each other to choose who will receive grants.

The only limitation is that half the money must go to Jewish causes. Beyond that, teens decide not only which organizations around the world to give to, but to how many and at what level, an exercise that opens up deep discussion on Jewish traditions of giving.

"The kids really learn how complicated it can be to conduct effective philanthropy," said Susan Grinel, who runs the Community Youth Foundation for the Jewish Community Foundation. "It's really a maturing process."

Aside from Shane's inspiration, Teller and her peers awarded $5,000 to Jewish World Watch, which is working for humanitarian aid and political awareness in Darfur, and $4,000 to L.A. Youth Network, which works with homeless kids and teens.

The fact that the kids decided to give to programs that are not specifically Jewish is typical not only of their generation, but of gen-Xers as well -- a trend some baby boomers and their parents find disconcerting. Grinel says the Jewish Community Foundation set up the youth program in response to concerns about generational disparities that kept coming up among foundation donor families.

"When the younger generation says I want to give to Darfur, and the older generation says this Jewish community in Los Angeles is what gave me my start and I think we should focus here, how do you begin to bridge that gap and let people talk on common ground?" said Grinel, who also runs the Family Foundation Center for the Jewish Community Foundation.

Grinel has found that focusing discussions on core, motivating values usually reveals a smaller gap than initially perceived, and unpacking those values can be educational for everyone involved.

"I think these programs present the Jewish community with a serious opportunity to listen and to learn from these teenagers," said Zelkind of the Jewish Teen Funders Network. "The best of these programs are being used in that way rather than in guiding the teenagers to make the kinds of decisions that their community leaders and parents would like them to make."

It is that interplay between adults and teens that makes these programs attractive -- kids are handing out large sums of money, and the adults who want that money, or who want to see that money disbursed intelligently, must treat teens seriously whether on site visits, at the dinner table, or in the board room. Kids, in turn, learn how to behave in adult milieus.

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