Teen philanthropy program awards tzedakah money, honors alumna
Audience members vote on recipient of hundreds of dollars of ‘spare change’
Princeton High School (PHS) senior Emily Kleinbart was dressed as a Jewish Greek immigrant and advocated for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum while Newtown resident Michael Mitgang, a member of Congregation Beth Chaim, argued for Dorot’s Homelessness Prevention Program and Aftercare Program.
Each young person’s goal was to convince the more than 600 people in attendance to donate hundreds of dollars to their cause.
This year the Jewish Community Youth Foundation (JCYF) tried something a little different at its 14th annual Philanthropy Fair and Check Presentation Ceremony which took place on Sunday, Feb. 12, at Robbinsville High School. They asked the audience to decide where to donate the spare change — $708.31 — collected at JCYF meetings and at the check ceremony.
JCYF is a youth philanthropy program where participants, from eighth through 12th grade, decide how to distribute a pool of money to Jewish non-profit organizations. Whereas JCYFers have months to research and negotiate their allocations, the adults at the event only got to vote anonymously by cell phone, with no discussion, and Dorot won the majority vote.
Michelle Napell’s first chance to experience the JCYF grant-making process occurred last year when One Family, the organization she then led was a potential grantee. Napell is now executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County. JCYF is a project of that organization and is funded by the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund and the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
As a grantee, Napell said, she had to pick a project that would interest 12th graders and then submit a formal proposal; she was approved to be part of the “speed-dating” philanthropy round in New York City.
“You have to defend your proposal, and the kids have a whole battery of questions,” Napell said. “You have to sell yourself and sell your project.”
This year Napell got to see JCYF at work from the other side of the table. “The best part was being able to stay for the allocations,” she said, describing the decision-making process. “There was a finite amount of money to give, and they were listening to where the money was most needed and where they thought it would make the biggest impact.”
Students shared their perspectives on the selection process:
Jacob Feldstein, a senior at the Pennington School and a member of the Jewish Center, said of the Israel organizations his group reviewed, “First you start with what you’ve heard of before — Magen David Adom and Birthright were no brainers. Then it starts getting down to what helps more people and why our money is going to be more valuable.”
Lisette Dubow, an 11th grader at Princeton High School and Jewish Center member, talked about how she chose among the outreach and advocacy groups. “I tried to do a mix between the first outline they gave of their proposal along with how the person presented themselves when they were showing their project to us and showing us what they wanted to fund,” she said.
Some groups provided lots of information and others less so. For Dubow, it was the Intellicopter Program that jumped out at her. “The presenter was very outspoken about the issues that he covered and why he thought his project was important,” she said. “He clearly knew what he was talking about and obviously wasn’t just someone working for the company.”
Logan Solomon, a sophomore at Montgomery High School, helped evaluate the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Monday “free” or “pay as you wish” program as part of his class’s focus on Jewish art and culture. “They were really prepared — any questions we had they knew how to really answer them,” he said.
Solomon also liked the museum’s emphasis. “They focused on the happy parts of Jewish culture; they talked about how people immigrated and how they had to balance Jewish culture with American culture.”
Among the national social service programs presented to the ninth-grade class, Princeton High School student and Jewish Center member Caleb Dubow was especially interested in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s legal aid program for asylum seekers. “They stayed on topic, talking about what was really important in their history and how they were helping people,” he said.
Eighth graders Ronen Adler, from Abrams Hebrew Academy, and Matthew Shapiro, from Lawrence Middle School, both members of Adath Israel Congregation, argued for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County’s food pantry. Shapiro was impressed by the pantry’s quality. “It is strictly nutritious food, no junk food. If you really need food, they will give it to you.”
Adler appreciated that the pantry gives people a coupon and lets them choose their own groceries. “The way they give food to people — they make it more like a shopping market.”
Harold Heft, vice president of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, talked about his experience presenting the kosher food pantry to a group of eighth graders. “It was as good a due diligence process as I’ve ever experienced on either side of the nonprofit table,” he said. “The kids were committed, intense, and serious.”
The experience, he said, will help them understand philanthropy and the need for social service, arts and culture, and education.
“This is a program that works.”