Putting faith into practice is difficult enough for adults. For teens it often feels impossible. This is where the Jewish Community Youth Foundation (JCYF) in Princeton, New Jersey, steps in. JCYF is a project of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County designed to teach teens in 8th through 12th grade how to put Jewish values into action through the art of giving back.
JCYF is more than a simple community service program. Celeste Albert, coordinator of teen programs for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, supervises 180 teens from 14 synagogues, 14 middle schools, and 15 high schools across the Princeton-Mercer-Bucks region who register to participate in the program. Students study Jewish values including Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Tzedakah (charity), and philanthropy, and relate those principles to non-profit causes across the Jewish spectrum. Each grade level is given a specific focus, growing from local service in eighth grade through national social service, arts and culture, outreach and advocacy and finally, to Israel. After pursuing a professional grant process, the students debate within their groups regarding which charities should receive how much cash. Monies are then awarded at JCYF’s annual Philanthropy Fair and check-presentation ceremony.
Where does the money come from? Participating teens donate $120, which is matched by both the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund and the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. Scholarships are available and any Jewish teen who wishes to participate is welcomed into the program.
Ricky Shechtel, Jewish Community Youth Foundation founder, wants teens to understand that they “don’t have to be old or have money to make a difference.” The idea for JCYF came to her when she got her own children involved in their family’s foundation. Watching her children participate in the grant decision-making process inspired Shechtel to start a philanthropic program with Jewish teens in the Princeton area. After studying various youth philanthropic groups across the country, JCYF was born. Fourteen years later the organization has donated over $730,000, with nearly one-quarter of the donations benefiting Israel.
Jewish Family and Children’s Service Executive Director Michelle Napell loves watching the funding process unfold each year. “The grantees see how funders think and what questions get asked,” while the JCYF team gets to see student participants develop key critical thinking skills as they grow through the program. Napell is quick to note the respect charitable organizations have for JCYF. “The grantees take these kids very seriously. They’re treated like any other potential donor to board room meetings with spreads and professional pitches.” For many students, JCYF is their first taste of the professional world.
Dr. Sara Shenker, the 11th-grade advisor, has relished in watching her students mature through the grant decision-making process since starting with the program three years ago. “They’ve grown very passionate about certain causes and use that passion to motivate their arguments through the debate process.”
Emily Josephson’s two children, high-school senior Isabel and sophomore Louis, have participated in JCYF since eighth grade. She takes pride in the fact that JCYF “…teaches the next generation of philanthropists how to make an impact on the global Jewish community,” in a non-denominational way. Noting that students come from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and non-affiliated streams of the Jewish world, Josephson observed that the students learn great public speaking, negotiation, and team building skills by bringing their unique perspectives to the table. “This is a program that focuses on one of the basics of being Jewish: giving back to the community.”
Many Jewish teens begin to disconnect from the Jewish community after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Intentionally targeting this post-b’nei mitzvah, pre-Birthright demographic, JCYF strengthens teens’ Jewish identity while helping them to find their place in the greater Jewish world. There is no better example of this than the annual Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient. This year’s honoree, Stephanie Woloshin, remarked that “JCYF enables students to impart real tangible change and repair the world.” She chose to donate her honorarium to the Jewish Teen Funders Network, an organization that supports Jewish teen philanthropic organizations.
JCYF used this year’s check-presentation ceremony to foster a spirit of tzedakah among the families in attendance. Student presenters engaged the 650 adults in the audience with a d’var Torah on the upcoming Parashah Yitro, observing “there is no one too important to do good in our world.” This was followed by an interactive text-to-vote quiz on Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah, complete with live results. Then, for the first time, JCYF put the power of philanthropy into the hands of students’ parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends with the No Small Change Live Grant. After viewing three short presentations on Jewish charities, the audience chose to award donated funds to DOROT. DOROT “alleviates social isolation among the elderly and provides services to help them live independently as valued members of the community.”
The Jewish Community Youth Foundation sets an example for any faith group looking to engage teenagers in their community while forging connections and building skills that will benefit them in their future careers and adult lives. As outgoing senior Drew Bush noted, “The greatest lesson I will take away from JCYF can be summarized in these words: ‘everything counts.’”