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Thinking Outside the Tzedakah Box

By Naomi Skop Richter, Jewish Teen Funders Network Program Associate (naomi@jfunders.org)

 

“… being awarded the Jewish Teen Funders Network grant gave a group of 42 teenagers a chance to make a big difference in the world… This program taught me responsibility, appreciation, and how charity functions.”

-Rachael Cohn, URJ Camp Jacobs Camp (Utica,MS)

 

Summer camps are filled with opportunities to pair the deep bonds of friendship with formative experiential learning opportunities.  Ask a “camp person” about her formative Jewish experiences and watch her face light up as she recalls the special moment that opened her fourteen-year-old world to a new way of thinking or being Jewishly.  These experiences shape teens in significant ways – often guiding them on their professional and volunteer journeys — as many former campers can attest.

As the Jewish community becomes increasingly concerned with who will fund Jewish organizations and projects in the years to come, the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) launched a pilot program, “Think Outside the Tzedakah Box,” in 20 camps this summer, pairing hands-on learning about philanthropy and the best of camp.  In the safe space of their special immersion experiences, groups of teens learned about why giving is a Jewish value, determined funding priorities as a group, reviewed grant proposals, and went on site visits.  Operating as a “teen foundation,” they challenged each other’s assumptions, engaged in a consensus building process, and ultimately gave real grants (of real money) to non-profit organizations.  In total, over 500 teens participated in teen foundations this summer and awarded over $20,000 in grants to organizations they researched, vetted, and visited.

Ask these campers about their experience and their eyes will shine as they tell you how special and different it was to leave camp in their “Shabbat clothes” for the “real world” to meet with the staff of a non-profit.  A camper from URJ Camp Harlam (Kunkletown, PA) boasted, “We were truly treated like adults on our site visits, and the whole experience was extremely empowering.”  Site visits helped the teens wrap their heads around complex problems in their communities and provide an opportunity to learn first-hand how non-profits work to address those challenges.

At first glance, summer camp seems an unusual place to run this kind of program.  Camp is so often about the internal camp experience- group bonding and safe space- and less about the outside world.  But that is exactly what makes this program memorable and attractive.  “I liked how in depth our conversations got and how close we got [through] them.  In general, we really bonded through [the program],” wrote a camper at Camp Laurelwood (Madison, CT).

A positive group dynamic, created by the immersion experience of camp, leads to the ability to respectfully challenge one another, be honest with one’s peers, and really listen – all necessary when making difficult group decisions about limited sums of money.  A teen foundation also requires dedicated staff people who are eager to bring their own interests and passions to this process, while stepping back to allow the teens to drive the process.  Indeed, camp staff, with their diverse backgrounds and skills, helped to elevate the program as each camp built upon the standard curriculum in its own way.  At URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a development professional helped the teens implement a fundraising drive in order to give away even more money, while the group at URJ Camp Harlam delved deeply into the mechanics of consensus-based decisions, building on the experience of a rabbinical student who attended a Quaker college.

This summer’s pilot program, supported by the Maimonides Fund, pulled from the “best practices” in the field of Jewish teen philanthropy.  Adapting existing curricular and programmatic materials, JTFN wanted to see how the teen foundation program model would work in the context of a Jewish summer camp. We surveyed the campers, staff, and administrators about their experience with the program, and we’ll focus on analysis of the evaluation data this fall (and build out the program for Summer 2013 accordingly).  In the meantime, we know that one day, you will come across these teens as adults. One will remember his favorite camp staff as he passionately tells a potential donor why a particular cause is so meaningful to him.  Another will smile as she sits down at her first board meeting for the non-profit she so values.  Many, we believe, will continue to give philanthropically through the lens of Jewish values.  And they will all know where their passions began, like so many other lasting interests—at Jewish summer camp.

 

Naomi Skop Richter is the program associate at the Jewish Teen Funders Network.  The Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) supports a network of over 100 teen philanthropy programs.  JTFN’s mission is to provide Jewish teens with hands-on opportunities to engage in collective philanthropic giving with their peers, guided by Jewish values.  Naomi fondly remembers her days as a camper and staff at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  Learn more at www.jtfn.org.

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