These Bar-Mitzvah Kids Already Are Jewish Philanthropists

The members of the Brandeis School’s 2017-18 seventh-grade class said they appreciated hearing from a range of nonprofits in their city. (Ben Sales)
Lyla Maymon and Jane Shvartzman went to interview officials last year at  Larkin Street Youth Services, a local organization fighting homelessness among young people, to see if their programs were worthy of a philanthropic grant.

Maymon and Shvartzman asked all the right questions, like what percentage of the group’s budget was used for overhead and how it planned to spend the money. They had looked up its financials on GuideStar, a database of nonprofit files.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, the two 13-year-olds were irked when the official giggled and rolled her eyes at them.

“She didn’t think of us as a serious thing,” Maymon said of the staffer. “She was giggling at some of the questions even though it was pretty serious.”

It might have been because Maymon and Shvartzman were in seventh grade at the time, and they were offering several hundred dollars from their bat mitzvah money. (Larkin Street Youth, which did receive the donation, told JTA in an email that the officials who spoke with the students respected them and thought they were “amazing” and “asked great questions.”)

The two teens are students at the Brandeis School of San Francisco. At this community Jewish day school in an upscale residential neighborhood, the seventh graders become a mini-charity of sorts: Rather than depositing their bar and bat mitzvah checks into the bank, the kids and their parents agree to take the money they would have spent on each other’s gifts and collectively donate it.

Each year, the bar/bat mitzvah class takes its pool of money — generally around $30,000.

While remarkable, these young do-gooders are far from alone: Teen philanthropy is a growing trend in the Jewish community. According to the Jewish Funders’ Network, U.S. Jewish teens gave more than $1 million in total during the 2015-16 school year.

“That’s a reflection that teens are continuing to develop their identities,” Briana Holtzman, the director of the Jewish Teen Funders’ Network, an umbrella for programs like the Brandeis School’s, told JTA in March. “They can give to the Jewish community and they can serve those outside of the Jewish community. There’s a real focus on the conversation, on challenging our teens to grapple with who they are.”

At the Brandeis School, which has run this program for about 30 years, the goal is to teach the kids the value of charity and make giving part of their lives from an early age. Jody Bloom, the Judaic studies teacher who runs the program, said it’s an especially valuable lesson for 13-year-olds, who can be consumed by obsessions over appearances, school or their latest crushes.

Jody Bloom, who runs the charity program, says it teaches students the importance of philanthropy while keeping their middle school drama in perspective. (Ben Sales)

Learning about the work of aid organizations, she said, makes them realize those problems aren’t so bad.

“It really helps the kids put things in perspective,” Bloom said. “They don’t see the need that’s out there when they’re in the school. When they go out in the world and see what’s needed, they feel so grateful for what they have.”

The charity program, called Tzedek – Hebrew for “justice” – takes up the bulk of the seventh-graders’ Judaic studies classes, which meet three times a week for about an hour. In the first semester, the students hear a weekly lecture from a local aid organization about its work. This school year, the speakers ranged from Jewish Vocational Services, which helps the unemployed, to the Homeless Prenatal Project, which aids parents of poor children.