Philanthropy isn’t a topic of conversation that necessarily has a right and wrong answer. Starting a dialogue with a teen with the question, “If you could donate to any organization to help solve a problem or issue, where would you direct that gift?” opens the door to a wonderful conversation about our values and shared concerns.  

Often, when we try and talk with our tweens and teens, discussions are less about perspective and more about being right. Children have very valuable and, at times, strong opinions about what problems in the world they want to help solve. Even if you aren’t ultimately going to involve your child in the decision as to how you will be allocating your families charitable dollars, you can certainly engage them in the conversation. Talking about giving is important and it is a significant conversation that will show them you sincerely value their opinion. 

Giving conversations also allow your children to learn more about what motivates you and your family. 

From the youngest age, we are conditioned to give tzedakah. Annually in Jewish preschools across the Valley, tzedakah boxes are made out of reclaimed food containers (my favorite is a small-sized can of Pringles). We are taught that the Jewish people give tzedakah because it is a mitzvah. We are taught that giving tzedakah will help us fulfill the mitzvah of tikkun olam; repairing our world.  

The why of giving philanthropically is not a new lesson or concept in our Jewish community. But there has been a tremendous rise of opportunities for giving and engagement for children. And with these new opportunities, we adults have begun to learn that our children have much to teach us about philanthropy. 

In generations past, most charitable organizations only created opportunities for engagement for donors who were giving at a high level. Now, organizations are realizing that kids are powerful forces for change. Organizations now focus on empowering children to use their voices, hands and limited dollars. Our children have different problem-solving strategies and aren’t limited by the constraints of “doing it because that is the way we have always done it.” Our children have a world view that is informed by the belief in tikkun olam. 

Our children know more about current events, not because they are assigned to bring in articles and discuss them in school, rather because their friends are sharing articles with them online. They are bright, inquisitive and truly do care about our world. We absolutely can and should engage them as philanthropists at an early age. 

We should be taking advantage of these teachable moments as Jewish teachable moments. When we engage in conversations about social justice and giving, we should remember to tie this work back to text and Jewish values. As parents and educators, grounding good behavior in our Jewish roots and values is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up. Hebrew and Yiddish allow us to identify positive actions with a Jewish label. Whether we refer to it as philanthropy or tzedakah is situationally dependent. 

Upon becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, the Jewish Community Foundation works to engage teens by helping them establish their own lifelong charitable giving fund. Teens donate at least $500 (usually from what they have received in gifts) and a charitable endowment fund is established in their name. The fund is invested with the Foundation’s assets and every year for the rest of their life, they will give away a portion of their fund to organizations of their choice. Teens are empowered as grant makers at a young age and will be reminded of the experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah annually. 

When these young fund-holders enter high school, they are invited to participate as strategic philanthropists as members of the Youth Philanthropy Board. This group works to identify values that will inform their giving, determine their funding focus, seek out potential grantees and ultimately decide how to grant $10,000 into our community. Significant opportunities exist in our community for involving teens and tweens in giving, and as adults it is our responsibility to guide our children toward these opportunities. JN

Andrea Cohen is the youth philanthropy director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix. For more information about tzedakah opportunities for tweens and teens and the B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Program, contact acohen@jcfphoenix.org or 480-699-1717.

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