27 May 2016
19 Iyar 5776
As we steamroll into June and toward the end of the school year, many of us find ourselves attending meetings or events almost every night, sometimes multiple ones per day. With the current hectic pace, it can sometimes be hard to see the forest through the trees. However, if we are able to be fully present and really pay attention, many of these events are reaffirmations of our core values and commitments, celebrations of our community, its aspirations, and the many people and organizations that make the ecosystem of Greater Boston so rich and vibrant.
Earlier this week, I was honored to attend and participate in one of these events, which reminded me why we do what we do. The closing ceremonies of the first Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston celebrated the learning, passion, hard work, and meaningful contribution of 34 teenagers from across the Boston area. Over the course of the year, they met regularly to learn Jewish perspectives on tzedakah, philanthropy, and tikkun olam; they collectively raised over $30,000 from the community; and, after thorough research, interviews, and deliberation, they awarded grants of philanthropic support to six different organizations working in the areas of poverty and education for underprivileged youth.
Gann Academy helped bring this innovative teen leadership program to Boston, working in close partnership with Prozdor at Hebrew College, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the Jewish Teen Funders Network. While so many organizations throughout the country are working in silos and reinventing the wheel in efforts to engage Jewish teens, this was a ground-breaking collaboration that illustrates what is possible when we work together across organizations. Both Gann and non-Gann students from throughout the Greater Boston area participated in both the Gann and Hebrew College boards, so we have broadened our reach and impact on the whole community. You can read more about the Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston and find the application for next year’s program on Gann’s blog.
In my closing remarks, I offered a distinction between the Jewish values of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) and our common understanding of tzedakah (acts of charity) and philanthropy. Tzedakah, as we traditionally understand it, is responsive, often to the particular needs of individuals or groups. It requires empathy, compassion, and personal responsibility—the ability and willingness to see and feel the needs of the other and the sense that, once I see that need, I must do something to address it rather than turn away. These habits of heart inspire us to put dollar bills in tzedakah boxes, give food directly to a homeless person, and write $18 checks (or for whatever amount we are able) to people and organizations that ask for our support. As I listened to the teens describe the missions of their boards and the organizations they chose to support, it was clear that they have internalized these core values of hesed and acharayut—empathy, compassion, and personal responsibility.
Philanthropy is different. It implies a more strategic and proactive approach to giving, whether responding to individual needs or addressing broader problems, often injustices, in the world. When I think of philanthropy, I think of tikkun olam, the Jewish notion of repairing the world. We step back and look through the lens of our Jewish values and aspirations at the gap between the way our world is and the way we know it could and should be. Through philanthropy, we distribute and direct resources toward the sacred work of closing that gap.
Our students experienced just how challenging and rewarding this work can be and, in the process, learned and grew in so many ways. They did the rigorous intellectual work of inviting, analyzing, and evaluating different non-profit organizations to determine how they would distribute their philanthropic dollars. They did the rigorous ethical work of understanding and internalizing Jewish values and principles and then clarifying and prioritizing those values in light of large social problems and real potential solutions.
And all of this work connected them to the wisdom of our Jewish tradition and to a newly formed Jewish community of talented and purposeful young adults.
These 34 exceptional teenagers understand that we are looking to them as the builders of a better, more just American society and world and the leaders and creators of a vibrant Jewish future. If this first year of the Jewish Teen Foundation is any indicator, our community and our future are in good hands.
Rabbi Marc Baker