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Major philanthropist to teens: Make a difference
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Major philanthropist to teens: Make a difference

Philanthropist Charles Bronfman addresses the Jewish Community Youth Foundation participants who aspire to follow in his footsteps.
Philanthropist Charles Bronfman addresses the Jewish Community Youth Foundation participants who aspire to follow in his footsteps.

Search for a cause that touches you on a personal level and enables you to make a real difference. Once you find it, you’ll know.

That was philanthropist Charles Bronfman’s advice to members of the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, a program for teens in grades eight-12, when he was featured speaker at the March 7 JCYF Philanthropy Fair and check presentation ceremony.

The JCYF is operated in association with United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund, and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County. Each young member contributes $120, which is matched by the Shechtel Fund and the federation. Participants visit actual sites of social service agencies and meet regularly before deciding how to allocate their funds. In this, the seventh year of the program, the 160 students who participated disbursed $64,800 to 27 organizations.

An estimated 600 people gathered in the Robbinsville High School auditorium to salute the teens and hear Bronfman share his thoughts on Jewish philanthropy. Some observers equated hearing Bronfman talk about giving with Jerry Seinfeld reflecting on comedy, Dustin Hoffman sharing insights on acting, or Sandy Koufax explaining the art of pitching a baseball.

“I never believed philanthropy is done strictly for altruistic reasons,” Bronfman told the gathering. “I give because I want to give. It’s something that’s provided me with a tremendous amount of satisfaction.”

Bronfman, who spent a half-century with The Seagram Company Limited and 22 years as owner of the Montreal Expos, traces the roots of his Jewish philanthropy back to his teenage years in Montreal. At age 17, he collected 50-cent pieces for the United Jewish Appeal campaign. His journey of giving has included service as president of the Montreal Jewish Federation and chair of national United Jewish Communities and of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc., a family of charitable foundations operating in North America and Israel. Bronfman also is a founder and cochair of Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults to strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish state.

In “Inside the Philanthropist’s Studio” — a nod to the similarly named TV program that showcases actors — Allison Brobst of Lawrenceville, Tali Ramo of Skillman, and Lindsey Curewitz of Yardley, Pa., a trio of seniors and longtime JCYF participants, interviewed Bronfman onstage. He said he considered that among the highlights of his evening because “I truly enjoy mentoring the next generation.”

Tali told the gathering how the JCYFers are already applying an approach to allocations that mirrors the philosophy advocated by Bronfman. She recalled a visit to an organization that was so successful the JCYF members concluded it didn’t need their assistance. “We wanted our money to go someplace where it would really make a difference,” she said.

After the program, sophomore Jessica Rubinstein of Lawrenceville told NJJN about the process the teens employ in screening the potential recipients of their charitable giving: “We ask questions. How many people does the program or organization serve? How exactly do people benefit? How will our allocation be utilized? It’s a matter of trying to find the best possible fit.”

According to junior Rebeka Cirkus of West Windsor, the allocations process provides more than lessons in prioritizing; it also provides lessons in life.

“It’s all about making informed decisions,” she said, “and that’s something all of us will be doing throughout our lives. It’s why I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be part of this program.”

She said she’s also grateful — and proud — that her younger sister Sami, an eighth-grader, has also become active with JCYF. “In addition to everything else the program offers,” Rebeka said, “it’s something Sami and I can share.”

For Sami, deciding to take part in JCYF was easy: “I saw how much Rebeka was getting out of it,” she said.

Junior Melissa Traub of West Windsor said she is among those who aspire to one day become a Jewish community leader. She believes JCYF provides the ideal training ground. “We’re learning how to make choices, how to express an opinion and how to take a stand,” she said. “These are all qualities you have to have in order to become an effective leader.”

Each JCYF age group has a different focus: For eighth-graders and ninth-graders, it’s local and national social service organizations, respectively. Sophomores concentrate on Jewish art and culture, juniors on outreach and politics, and seniors primarily on Israel.

As a result, after five years, JCYF members receive a comprehensive overview of the Jewish community.

“The kids get so much from this program,” said federation executive director Andrew Frank. “The JCYF began with a small number of kids and has grown to 160 under what can best be described as passionate leadership.

“The participants are getting their feet wet in the area of tzedaka, and the Jewish community is developing future leaders,” he said. “That’s a magnificent combination.”

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