Sue Schwartzman, director of philanthropic education at the San Francisco Jewish Community Endowment Fund, beamed as she sat at the back of the room at a recent ceremony held at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, California. She was watching a group of 23 high school students present sizeable grants to eight different non-profit organizations that address homelessness and related issues. Anyone would have smiled at seeing these young people make this kind of impact, but Schwartzman had even more of a reason to celebrate the moment.

In little over a decade, a tzedaka class project Schwartzman initiated as a middle school teacher at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto has grown into the highly successful Jewish Teen Foundation program of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. Since 2003, the program has engaged 500 teens, who have served on four different Bay Area boards, and who have raised and allocated $1.3 million to non-profits operating locally, in Israel and in other countries around the world.

“Kids today are what we call the ‘one-touch’ generation. They know what is going on in the world, and they want their lives to be more meaningful than past generations,” Schwartzman said. “Our teen foundation gives them a clear, defined path to learn about tzedaka and philanthropy, and to take action.”

“Kids today are what we call the ‘one-touch’ generation. They know what is going on in the world, and they want their lives to be more meaningful than past generations”

Although the San Francisco Jewish Teen Foundation is unique in some ways, it is by no means the only Jewish teen foundation in North America. According to Stefanie Zelkind, Director of Youth Philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network, there are currently 51 teen foundations operating out of JCCs, schools, summer camps, bureaus of Jewish education, and Jewish community federations. By this fall, there will be another 30 foundations up and running. In addition to these, there are also 37 individual giving programs, whereby individual teens set up their own mini-foundations. At least a couple of thousand young people are involved in these efforts annually.

Jewish teen philanthropy took off in the middle part of the last decade, when two funders at the Jewish Funders Network came together to fund Zelkind’s position. The idea was for the JFN to provide value added on a national level by facilitating networking, identifying and disseminating best practices, training staff, and launching new programs. Until then, various initiatives, such as the Jewish teen foundations at the San Francisco and San Diego federations, the Rose Youth Foundation in Denver, and the individual giving B’nai Tzedek program at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Western Massachusetts, were operating completely independently.

“It’s amazing how much the field has grown and coalesced since I started in 2006, when 26 teen foundation programs existed,” Zelkind told The Times of Israel. “There’s a recognition of the power of bringing teens together as a cohort of peers to clarify values, create a mission statement, and to struggle and prioritize together about allocations,” she added.

Rachel Barlow (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rachel Barlow (photo credit: Courtesy)

It was that learning curve and struggle that attracted Rachel Barlow, 17, to serve for two years on the San Francisco/Marin County board of the Bay Area foundation. Barlow, who lives in San Rafael, California, was chosen through a competitive process her first year, and then was appointed to the board’s leadership council in her second.

“I got a lot of guidance my first year, so I wanted to give back by guiding new members the second year, and also to get the leadership experience” Barlow said. “But the truth is, I just didn’t want to leave,” she admitted. “I liked meeting similarly driven young Jewish people who care about the world and want to be change makers.”

Barlow appreciated becoming aware of social issues both near and far. “I learned about the African refugees who make a very dangerous journey to Israel, but also about teens in my own neighborhood that are at risk,” she reflected.

Andrew Katznelson, 17, who lives on the Stanford University campus adjacent to Palo Alto and served this past year on the South Peninsula board, is hoping to be chosen for the leadership council next year. “I liked working on problems in the community here and in Israel, and learning how philanthropy works,” he said. “The most challenging part was deciding how to allocate the money. We had to use consensus and make some hard compromises.”

According to Katznelson, he came away this year with a greater amount of empathy for others. “Living in Palo Alto can be a bit like living in a bubble,” he said. He added that he personally finds hands-on community service or volunteer work more satisfying, but he recognized that “JTF is more effective. It has more of an impact in terms of helping others help themselves.”

Barlow and Katznelson both liked that the strategic philanthropy skills they gained were taught within a Jewish values framework and through Jewish texts. “These are skills that aren’t necessarily taught to kids,” Katznelson emphasized. “I am sure I will use them in the future in Jewish community leadership and leadership in general.”

Rachel Levenson (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rachel Levenson (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rachel Levenson, who was in the first cohort of the South Peninsula board, served on the leadership council and stayed active as an aluma, has already had a chance to use these Jewish philanthropic values in her adult life. Having just graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with an undergraduate degree in government and economics, she is off this summer to Malawi for a one-year position with Innovations for Poverty Action, evaluating the impact of a microfinance program.

Levenson, who grew up in Mountain View, California, credits both her parents and Schwartzman and the teen foundation for setting her on a path of philanthropy and social activism. “JTF just enhanced who I already was,” she said. She remembers the huge time commitment the foundation required, but also “loving every step of the process.” She describes her foundation work as “the part of my life I was passionate about,” and says it was a good outlet for her critical thinking skills. “It’s a safe space to have serious conversations with other teens,” she said.

“It’s a safe space to have serious conversations with other teens”

Always interested in the developing world, Levenson has already spent significant time in Uganda and Nicaragua with the American Jewish World Service. “The question that has always interested me since my time with JTF is, how do you evaluate impact?” she said. “You want to help people before they fall, so long-term sustainable impact is key.”

“Teens leave JTF with a practical application of their Jewish identity,” Levenson asserted. For her, it was more about the skills, ideals and motivation to make a difference than it was about raising the money.

When it comes to raising the money, things happen differently in the Bay Area than elsewhere. According to Zelkind, in most cases, the teens are either given a grant to allocate, or they donate moderate sums that are matched by a donor or a grant. “The emphasis is on the education toward and process of allocation,” Zelkind explained.

However, in the Bay Area, the teens raise all the money they end up allocating –usually between $175,000 and $212,000 per year — with the recession having had no appreciable effect on fundraising, according to Schwartzman.

Barlow and Katznelson both said that the fundraising part is the hardest, but that it is very important to them. “I much more prefer meeting and interviewing the potential grantees than asking for money, but we definitely feel a greater sense of accomplishment, more invested, and more of a responsibility to donors because we do the fundraising ourselves,” Barlow said.

At the grant presentation ceremony at the Oshman Family JCC, Peter Drury was there to receive the check presented to A Child’s Right, an organization that works to provide clean drinking water to children in urban areas in seven developing and emerging countries. (This grant was for a project in Cambodia.) He publicly recognized the teens’ exceptional dedication and investment: “When I met with the South Peninsula Jewish Teen Foundation previously — to present the mission, work and method of A Child’s Right — it was among the most challenging conversations in my career. These teens are smart, passionate, diligent and thorough. They aren’t cutting any corners on tikkun olam,” he told the audience.

These teens are smart, passionate, diligent and thorough. They aren’t cutting any corners on tikkun olam

Rachel Ishofsky, associate executive director for Jewish Heart For Africa, told The Times of Israel that Jewish teen philanthropists have a special place in her heart. Jewish teens foundations nationwide have given her organization $76,000 to bring Israeli solar and agricultural technologies to eight schools, medical clinics and orphanages in East Africa. Of that total, $50,000 have come from the Bay Area foundation.

“Teens are among the best funders — they ask insightful questions, they take the time to learn about each prospective investment, and they are eager to give away the money they raise,” Ishofsky said.