Learning about the importance of giving tzedakah is a basic tenet of any Jewish education.
"It's not just about giving away money," said Emanuel's Rabbi Laura Geller. "It's about teaching young people how to be responsible Jews when it comes to giving tzedakah. It's not something you should do instinctively. You have to do it thoughtfully."
The program, now in its second year, is called MATCH -- short for Money and Teenagers Creating Hope. It started with an anonymous gift to the Temple Emanuel Endowment of $125,000, which the congregation was obliged to match. MATCH students use the interest earned from those funds to make philanthropic donations to a variety of organizations of their own choosing.
"They model what it means to be grown-up Jews," Geller said. "Many of the kids in our synagogue are children of privilege, and some of them will have the opportunity to manage their own family foundations some day. All of the children in this program are learning about what it means to be a thoughtful philanthropist."
Last year, the students, who range from eighth to 12th grade, gave away $5,000. This year, the program is divided by age into two distinct boards with 36 students currently participating. Having raised all the necessary matching funds, Temple Emanuel can now provide each group with $5,000 to give away.
Over three sessions last year, the students analyzed Jewish texts about tzedakah, heard from local philanthropists and engaged in heated discussions about where the money should go. They also learned practical skills, such as how to read an organization's 990 tax form and how to use various Web sites to research charities on the Internet.
"I would wager that most people who give charity don't have a clue about that," Geller said.
Ultimately, the young participants decided to give $750 to the Make a Wish Foundation, $1,000 to AIDS Health Care, $1,000 to Camp Harmony and $1,000 to Friends of Israel's Disabled Veterans.
One requirement of the original endowment gift is that 25 percent of the money the students donated should be directed to a project within the temple itself. Geller said she was particularly touched by the teenagers' discussion of where those funds should go, and by their conclusion last spring to return that portion of the money -- $1,250 -- to the temple's endowment for use by future generations.
"One kid said, 'Our grandparents made sure there was an endowment for us. We need to make sure that it's there for our grandchildren,'" Geller recalled. "It's interesting to see what areas the kids feel are important for Jewish organizations to be funding, how they think Jews ought to be giving their money."
Justine Roach, a 16-year-old from West Los Angeles, is participating in the program at Temple Emanuel for the second year. Last year, she headed the team that investigated inner-city youth, which ended up supporting Camp Harmony.
"It felt so good and empowering, especially being a teenager and getting to make these kinds of decisions," Roach said. "I gained responsibilities and it felt really nice. I think we're about the right age to be making these types of decisions. In the future I'm going to be dealing with these issues, too."
In addition to the practical experience MATCH provides, Geller said it has been a wonderful way to keep teenagers engaged in the life of the congregation after their bar and bat mitzvahs.
Geller said she had been thinking about creating such a program for a long time, and when a donor approached her looking for a program to fund, she jumped at the chance.
"This is a game that you can play -- simulating a family foundation and asking kids to decide where they would give the money," Geller said. "I had done that in confirmation classes and it always worked really well because it gave the kids the chance to think about something real, and I thought wow, what if we could really do it?"
Now it is not a simulation game, it's the real thing. And students are even more engaged, Geller said. "It is a lot of money to them. None of them gives away $5,000 a year on their own, and they have the sense of working together and giving away a lot more money. It was very exhilarating to sit with the 10th-12th-graders this year, and to hear them wrestle with what it means to be a responsible citizen in this world."