Briana Holtzman, Director, Jewish Teen Funders Network;
Andrés Spokoiny, CEO & President, Jewish Funders Network;
Judy Mann, COO, Jewish Funders Network
Around the world Jewish teens are making a difference, exploring their core Jewish values, identifying need in their communities, and granting real dollars to real organizations. Grantmaking through a Jewish lens. Jewish identity development through philanthropy. The Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) supports professionals and organizations who guide teens through the grantmaking process, making their way from observers to doers – receivers to givers. Through a variety of initiatives, JTFN connects the field, shares programmatic resources, facilitates professional development, and helps organizations launch the right style of Jewish philanthropy for their teens.
Teens make an impact today, and the experience makes an impact for life, setting a hands-on example of how to live the values of tzedakah and tikkun olam through collective grantmaking. In online workshops, and in person convening opportunities, we work with educators in synagogues, day schools, summer camps, federations, community foundations, and other Jewish community organizations to bring Jewish wisdom into the programs overall and also to identify milestones throughout the program year where we can bring Jewish wisdom to life. Some examples below:
Teens start their year learning about Jewish giving interacting with traditional Jewish texts, like Maimonides’ perspective on levels of giving from the lowest, begrudgingly, to the greatest, giving towards developing sustainability. Teens discuss their own experiences with different types of giving and consider their new role for the year ahead. This conversation becomes a cornerstone for the year.
As teens explore the topic of Jewish giving, they also are challenged to identify core personal Jewish values, as well as shared ones. Collective grantmaking requires that teens form a community and live the text “da lifnei mi atah omed - know before whom you stand” and they do this in developing a mission statement for their actions all year that represents the values, and the goal of the teen foundation.
Once a mission has been identified, teens learn about how organizations do work out in their local, or global, community and consider proposals from real non-profit organizations. At JTFN, we encourage consensus based decision making, which requires that teens not only learn, but live the text from Pirke Avot - “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone, as it is said: ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.” In conversation with their peers, and in conversation with professionals from the community and representing potential grantees during meetings and site visits, the teens are active listeners and contributors, and most importantly, decision makers.
When teen philanthropists make their grant decisions each cycle, they learn that they are a part of a bigger community – of Jewish philanthropists, of teen philanthropists, of community members. They are given the tools and then entrusted to use them. Teens are reminded that giving is not a one-time experience, that they have resources and the chance to make decisions about how those resources are used. They are not just told, “it is not your responsibility to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it” Pirke Avot 2:21, but also given a platform and structure to do it.
By providing tools and models for organizations to engage teens from all backgrounds in Jewish giving, we are reinforcing the Jewish belief that people of all ages, all stages of life, all economic backgrounds, have an obligation to give. More in depth models of teen philanthropy programming take that one step further, exploring not only giving charity but strategic, Jewish, grantmaking.
In practice, Jewish teen philanthropy programming pairs education with doing, bringing text to life and ingraining wisdom for life. To learn, for example, that our tradition is rooted in many contradictory texts about giving allows for teens and educators to explore the multitude of ways to engage in Jewish giving and at the same time signals the ultimate importance of philanthropy, of tzedakah, of tikkun olam – our obligation to make the world more whole through our actions. That the learning is integrated with doing, enables teens to internalize Jewish wisdom and apply it in the future.
JTFN’s role as a field builder and network weaver attempts to fill a void felt by many professionals who do Jewish teen philanthropy work. A facilitator could be the only person doing this work for miles, and the opportunity to share and gather resources, connect with others in the Jewish teen philanthropy space (both virtually and in person), and learn from inside and outside our field raises the bar for each local program and for the field as a whole. We are strengthened by the work that is blossoming at the local level and take pride in sharing that to strengthen each other.
One professional shared, following a recent convening, “I LOVED the opportunity to meet other professionals in the field and to work with everyone at JTFN. I feel very inspired leaving the conference!”
For teen participants:
The responsibility granted to teens to step into the role of grantmaker, is one that they can hold on to and continue to do, and also the learning is applicable in other parts of their lives. Teen philanthropy participants can take this learned wisdom and learned experience into their high school classrooms, clubs, and youth groups; they can bring a model of giving or of empathetic leadership into their colleges; and they can apply the lessons into the families they are a part of today, and the ones they will build tomorrow.
Our field is relatively young, but over the past 10 years, JTFN has had the opportunity to hear from participants and follow along as local programs explored their impact. In JTFN’s summer camp initiative, one camper reflected, “learning Jewish values, and applying them to something as important as charity, really opened my eyes. The Jewish Teen Funders Network opened doors for us to be able to give back to the community, and I learned how to apply Jewish values to different levels of tzedakah.” Our impact report summary is included as an attachment.
We believe that teens will rise to responsibility and that they can be more successful doing that when given the tools, training, and platform to take it on. At JTFN we believe that our tradition is clear about an obligation to give, that Jewish text and Jewish culture is built upon a groundwork of giving back, of making a difference. We also have learned that when words can leave the page and come alive in your hands, in your decision making, and as a part of your life when you are faced with difficult choices, applying Jewish wisdom becomes second nature. Jewish teen philanthropy is a model where we don’t have to look too far to find so many different ways that Jewish wisdom can be applied, from personal values to the importance of working together, all in the spirit of giving.
We have also learned that it takes confident Jewish professionals to serve as Jewish role models and facilitators. In addition to in person convening, JTFN runs a number of initiatives including the Foundation Board Incubator which has provided direct and ongoing coaching to a number of professionals as they launch high investment, high impact community wide teen foundations. Additional professional development initiatives include one on one mentorship, JTFN consultations, communities of practice, and web based learning. Each of these initiatives focus on bringing Jewish wisdom to program leaders who in turn facilitate with their own group of teens. Equally for facilitators and for teens, learning from the page is good - learning from the heart, the mind, and the hands is where real Jewish wisdom comes to life.
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