In a program drawing about 500 people, the Jewish Community Youth Foundation of Princeton Mercer Bucks celebrated 10 years of turning young people into Jewish philanthropists and leaders.
The program, held March 3 at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, marked the graduation of 34 seniors from a program that has distributed $463,745 in donations to Jewish causes.
“I am thrilled at the way this has turned out,” program founder Ricky Shechtel told NJJN. “We have 162 kids involved and 110 alumni.”
Participating teens in grades eight-12 are asked to contribute $120, which is matched by the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund. The teens meet several times during the year to discuss philanthropy and to debate how their pooled dollars will be distributed among Jewish cultural, educational, and charitable institutions.
The Shechtels were among the founders of the Jewish Teen Funders Network, which supports more than 120 teen philanthropic groups nationally.
According to surveys of foundation alumni, 95 percent credit the programs with enhancing their Jewish identity, 97 percent remained committed to tzedaka, and more than two-thirds are actively volunteering at non-profits.
Family members and guests browsed through the philanthropy fair preceding the ceremony, learning about the spectrum of projects.
During the program, representatives of organizations joined teens onstage to receive their portion of the group’s $72,000 fund. JCYF members represent 17 synagogues, 12 middle schools, and 21 high schools.
Eighth-graders focused on giving to local social service agencies; ninth-graders, national social service; sophomores, Jewish arts and culture; juniors, outreach and advocacy, and seniors, Israel. As a part of their research, older students met in New York and Philadelphia with representatives of national and international organizations.
Joyce Cohen, vice president of the Southern New Jersey region of Hadassah, accepted money from the eighth-graders for scholarships to send youngsters to its summer camps.
“I think it’s incredible they are learning the value of tzedaka at this age,” she said. “They are learning to give something larger than themselves.”
Wendy Woloshin of Yardley, Pa., said her daughter, Stephanie, 16, has learned through JCYF “to give back to the community. I’m so proud of her, “she said. “This is really development for the future. It teaches them what the real world is like.”
That sense of empathy for others was echoed by another Yardley resident. Through his JCYF involvement, eighth-grader Brett Hoffman told NJJN, “I learned a sense of what is important to people and why it’s important to help them. I learned who it is important to give to as well as the power of doing a mitzva.”
The ceremony also featured the presentation of the foundation’s distinguished alumni award to Alison Berg of Princeton Junction, who accepted via Skype from her dorm room at the University of Michigan, where she is active in Hillel and in philanthropic endeavors.
In his d’var Torah, Andrew Shechtel credited his wife for making JCFY a success, saying “her calling” was to carry out hiddur mitzvot, beautifying the commandments.
In their final year in JCYF, seniors talked about the benefits of the program. Allison Persky of Princeton said she gained a wealth of knowledge about the Jewish community and needs in both the United States and Israel; “it is important to support both,” she said.
“Since we had limited time and resources, I learned what was important and how to prioritize,” said Noah Gordon of Hopewell. “I learned how to manage my time and how to engage in constructive debate.”
Ben Meshumar of West Windsor said, “There is something about having money and finding someone to give it to that gives you perspective you can’t get elsewhere,” he said. “It really gives you insight.”