Move over fountain pens. If the Blue and White Fund has its way, the trend in bar and bat mitzvah gift giving might be instruments of the financial kind.
The Blue and White Fund is a diversified U.S. mutual fund that exclusively invests in Israeli companies traded on the NASDAQ, New York, Amex and Tel Aviv stock exchanges. The fund is offering free $18 mutual fund certificates to every American bar or bat mitzvah. Friends and relatives are encouraged to buy gifts of stock in the fund, as well.
The only condition of the free offer: Each teen must have proof that he or she has attained a religious rite of passage.
Shlomo Eplboim, the fund's founder and CEO, launched the project two years ago, hoping that receiving a portion of the Israeli mutual funds would spur young teens to a lifelong interest in Israeli investment.
"I guarantee that giving the fund is better than giving Kiddush cups," Eplboim said, adding that the next generation "does not believe in charity" as much as it believes in "innovation and brainpower."
To date, the fund has distributed more than 450 free certificates, and that number is expected to increase. Eplboim said more than 1,000 requests were received in 2005 -- following the group's new promotional partnership with the Jewish National Fund's (JNF) bar and bat mitzvah project, which encourages families to use familiar JNF tree certificates as simcha invitations or thank-you notes.
"For every child that approaches the Blue and White Fund for a share, we plant a tree for them as a gift. Conversely, bar mitzvah-age kids learn about the Blue and White Fund by participating in the JNF's bar/bat mitzvah simcha program," said Rona Rodrig, JNF director of product and campaign development. "Investment and charity for Israel go hand-in-hand."
Eplboim believes that teens who follow their Blue and White Fund investments will "learn about investing in the backbone of Israeli companies, which is incredible." By introducing teens to Israeli investing at a young age, Eplboim hopes these same youngsters will be more likely to become investors -- hopefully in Israel -- as adults.
"That is exactly what happened to me," said Stuart Peskin, principal for State Street Global Advisors. Peskin said receiving seven shares of Coca-Cola stock on his seventh birthday made a "huge impact" on his chosen career path.
Yet, some of today's teens are more skeptical.
Jake Seltman, 12, a seventh-grader, said that if he were to receive the fund as a gift, he would consider further investment in Israel only "if the fund really works."
Josh Mangel, another middle school student, is already a savvy investor.
"Two years ago ... I saw Yahoo growing really fast, almost $3 [per share] in a week," he said. "I bought the stock and made a lot of money. If I saw that [Blue and White] mutual fund grow, I'd invest in an [Israeli] company."
Adult skeptics worry about the stability of Israeli investments following years of heightened Middle East terrorism.
Tom Glaser, president of the American Israel Chamber of Commerce's Southeast region, said that while terrorism has "had an impact on the Israeli economy, many companies survived intact. Israel is second only to the United States in high-tech startups, and [these companies] are strongly supported by venture capital from Israel and all over the world."
Glaser said many Israeli companies are grounded in "real, innovative technology ... some of the most 'disruptive' [cutting edge] technology anyone has ever done. Israel has the most companies traded on NASDAQ besides the United States and Canada.... It is a true phenomenon."
Eplboim and his partners also believe that there's a discrepancy between the media's portrayal of Israel and the growth potential of Israeli companies. He sees no danger in the country's geopolitical situation, because "Israel has been dealing with this for 56 years."
"The biggest asset Israel has is its education," said Eplboim, citing statistics that Israel leads the world with the largest number of university graduates per capita, ranks third globally in the number of patents issued and spends 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, despite the political turmoil that receives so much media attention.
Although the Blue and White Fund is exclusively invested in Israeli goods in order to support Israel, the free funds are not exclusively limited to Jewish teens. Any child who can supply proof of a religious ceremony (a copy of an invitation or letter from a religious official) is eligible; young Christians who celebrate their first communion or confirmation can also receive a free $18 fund investment.