Loud music spun by a DJ, teens dancing and eating pizza, adults shmoozing and noshing on appetizers and expressing pride in maturing young adults.
Sounds like a bar mitzva party, and indeed it was — a celebration of the 13th anniversary of the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, a program that guides 13- to 18-year-olds in the ways of giving — how to research a Jewish philanthropy, make site visits, and select programs for charitable donations by group consensus.
For Ricky Shechtel, founder and supporter of JCYF, the Feb. 21 festive event and philanthropy fair at Robbinsville High School, where the annual presentation of checks to recipient agencies took place, was a time for reflection and appreciation of the organization’s progress.
“It’s very exciting to me because in the first years I knew almost everyone,” she said. “Now I know very few people, which I take as a great compliment — it means the program has a life of its own.”
Nearly 170 teens participated this year, distributing almost $62,000 to 27 agencies.
The distinguished alumni award went to American University sophomore Stephanie Blitzer of East Windsor. During the formal program, the Chevlin sisters, 12th-grader Lindsay and eighth-grader Sabrina, delivered a d’var Torah.
Since the program’s inception in 2003, JCYF has donated nearly $670,000 to 58 different organizations.
Through the program, participating teens donate $120 of their own money, which is matched both by the the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund.
The Levy siblings, Brooke, a high school senior, and Gregory, a sophomore, members of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, Pa., talked to NJJN about the allocation process.
Over the five years of membership, the teens explore local and national social service, Jewish art and culture, outreach and advocacy, and Israel causes.
Divided into subgroups according to grade, the students review grant proposal forms completed by agencies that JCYF has selected and then choose four or five agencies for site visits by several of the teens.
“Sometimes [the agencies] are vague about what they want to do with the money, and we have to press them on it,” said Gregory. “Sometimes there are holes in what they say. Sometimes we are treated like children, or they don’t know what they are talking about.”
The results of each site visit are presented to the subgroup along with a thumbs up or thumbs down recommendation. “Then we discuss how we are going to allocate,” Gregory said. “Sometimes it’s quick, and sometimes it’s long.”
Brooke said the decision-making process can be difficult. “All of these organizations are doing amazing things. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to someone, that ‘You’re not good enough,’” she said.
In coming to a decision, Brooke said, she keeps a couple of criteria in mind: “I try and look at what group makes the most difference for the most people but also keeping in mind its role in the Jewish community and what difference it will make.”
Graduating seniors described in a booklet what they had gained from JCYF.
“Everyone that I have had the pleasure to meet over these past five years are like family to me — friends and advisers alike,” wrote William Benthem de Grave.
Heather Brandspiegel wrote, “I have developed a new sense of giving and discovered who I am as a Jew in a new way.”
Sophie Friedman learned about the nature of giving: “Helping individuals and entire communities with money that would otherwise be spent on personal luxuries is a rewarding task and an incredibly important one. It is very easy to improve the lives of others.”
Ariel Drossman learned to identify with recipients of tzedaka: “JCYF taught me that there are actual people in need on the other side of those collections.”
The program has also helped students build important life skills. Sam Merkovitz said he “learned to consider all perspectives before reaching a conclusion…instead of jumping to a conclusion based on bias.”
Eitan Zlatin recalled a discussion weighing donations to pet therapy versus scholarships, writing, “I realized that we all view charities from our unique perspectives. I have grown to appreciate the art of compromise that allows every opinion to play a role in the final decision.”
Parents were also enthusiastic. Beth El member Emily Josephson, the mother of ninth-grader Louis and junior Isabel, appreciated the decision-making skills her children have gained and the opportunity they were given “to participate in the Jewish community as a whole” and “to be with kids not just from their synagogue and school.”
Beth El member Jonathan Sabin said his son Jess “developed an understanding of the importance of tzedaka and a better understanding of how tzedaka can impact a specific organization or community or a specific interest that is important to the Jewish community or society.”
Gil Gordon, board member of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, which guides the program, told NJJN, “Of all the great things this agency does, this is one of the best because it is all about developing the next generation of Jewish donors and leaders.”