Outside study lauds teen tzedaka program

Outside study lauds teen tzedaka program

Princeton philanthropist Ricky Shechtel was pretty sure that the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, which she started in 2003, achieved a lot in its first 10 years, but she is thrilled that an outside agency agrees.

“We knew anecdotally that it was working, but it’s great to have that confirmed with hard numbers,” she said.

The report by the Michigan-based Formative Evaluation Research Associates, issued late last year, says the foundation succeeded overwhelmingly in achieving its goals of teaching philanthropy and encouraging community activism among the program’s teenage participants.

According to the report, nearly all the program alumni — 95 percent — agreed that participation enhanced their Jewish identity. They also said they valued how they learned to listen to others (94 percent), to disagree with others respectfully (87 percent), and to build consensus (84 percent), while forming their own opinions and expressing their ideas.

The study was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund, which together fund the program; it is administered by the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.

Youngsters join JCYF in eighth grade and continue through high school, learning about Jewish philanthropy, social service, cultural organizations, advocacy, and Israel. At the outset, students each contribute $120 of their own money, which is matched by the Shechtel fund and the federation. Together, they research and decide how much to give to which causes.

Over the first decade, the youngsters gave out grants totaling $463,745 to 53 different Jewish agencies.

Participants were pleased but not surprised by the study’s positive findings.

“It was amazing to see how its findings were linked to what I experienced — like the way we learned to listen and compromise,” said Lily Pepper, a 2008 program graduate who grew up in Princeton Junction and lives in New York City. She has a degree in international studies and public policy and law, and works with UJA-Federation of New York as an administrative assistant with the Jewish Communal Network Commission.

Pepper said she provides support for precisely the kind of philanthropic allocations she did as a teen — “just on a much larger scale.” She has also stayed connected to the foundation, serving as an adviser to the current groups.

Another 2008 grad, Ben Siegel of Princeton, went on to start a Hillel at Lynchburg College in Virginia. There were only 25 Jewish students when he arrived, and no Jewish organizations. “If I hadn’t been involved in JCYF I wouldn’t have had the confidence [to start the Hillel]. JCYF laid the groundwork and gave me the knowledge and skills for campus leadership,” he said.

Darren Freedman of East Windsor, a 2012 grad, is one of four siblings who took part in the program. He has felt the benefit as he trains to become an officer in the U.S. Navy. “At the Naval Academy, peer leadership is one of the most difficult challenges we face on a daily basis,” he said. “The open discussion and debate typical during JCYF grant evaluations teaches tact, listening, respect, and the ability to take charge of a group while at the same time ensuring everybody has input into the final solution.

“JCYF certainly helped prepare me for my future career as a naval officer.”

Shechtel, who lives in Princeton, has personal evidence of JCYF’s benefit. While her first two children, now 24 and 25, were too old for the program, her youngest, now 22, joined in its third year. The three “are in the family business,” their mother said: They have their own foundation, and on a recent visit home had a two-hour debate about how to allocate funds. “The youngest held his own so well and asked the best questions,” Shechtel recalled.

Board member Adam Cohen of West Windsor said he and his wife Debbie have seen how the foundation has taught their daughter Allie to share their interest in philanthropy, learn to evaluate recipient organizations, and “make tough choices when your resources are limited.”

Like Shechtel, he welcomed the report’s findings. “Judging by the reaction of those who have participated and the response from the benefiting agencies, I conclude that the program is extremely well run,” he said. “We have been pleased, and Allie’s enthusiasm for participating continues. I think the report reflects that same enthusiasm.”

For more information or to apply to participate in the JCYF, contact Celeste Albert at 609-987-8100 or celestea@jfcsonline.org. Applications can be downloaded at jfcsonline.org/jcyf.html.

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