By, Joanna Sherman
In pre-school, we are taught that sharing is caring. While in this context, the advice relates to sharing toys and books. As a Jewish teen, I relate this message to philanthropy. Tzedakah is one of the first values taught in religious schools and synagogues. My first experiences with philanthropy and giving involved my own Tzedakah box. I personally loved to fill up my box with change that my parents had or that I would find under the couch. My actions reinforced the idea that I wanted to help my community in any way I could, and this obligation has only grown stronger over the years. Flash-forward to high school where I’m now serving on the Youth Ambassador Council at the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN), and it has been an incredible opportunity. I have engaged with and learned from other Jewish teens around the country who share their views and experiences with teen philanthropy. The differences and similarities in our beliefs reveal our own passions and priorities.
Joanna (right), at The Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Campaign launch.
At our last Youth Ambassador Council meeting, we discussed the JTFN study, “Just Teens,” which takes a look at Jewish teen giving. The trend of giving locally has been an important discussion topic. The general agreement was that giving locally is important, largely because the local community is where we have the strongest sense of responsibility and duty. Growing up in a thriving and supportive Jewish community, I feel obligated to give back to something that has given so much to me. I spent eight amazing summers at Camp Wise, my local JCC sleep-away camp. The memories and friendships I made there are irreplaceable. Giving locally means that I am able to give back to my camp and to my community that provided me with these experiences. The respect I have gained for my home community combined with my personal understanding of philanthropy as an obligation makes it easy for me to give back to local organizations. However, it is important to recognize that giving locally doesn't always mean giving to Jewish organizations. Some teens serving on the council with me have said that they feel it is more important to give where help is most needed, instead of restricting their philanthropic efforts to Jewish foundations and organizations. To me, this was a surprising reaction. I have always felt a strong sense of urgency to support Jewish organizations, because if we don’t support them, who will? However, these responses were every bit as humbling for me as they were surprising. I was in awe that teens wanted to help in any way they could, regardless of an organization’s religious, economic, or social background. The philanthropic obligation is as strong as ever and is being applied in a broader sense to any community that is in need of extra support.
Judaism teaches the importance of giving where help is needed, and open interpretation of this custom allows for greater support across all types of movements, groups, and communities. These morals, combined with tzedakah, are a clear link between teen philanthropy and teen priorities. As a junior, I served on the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Saltzman Youth Panel, Cleveland’s local teen philanthropy program, which is what originally connected me with JTFN. Our three most important values were education, safety, and health. In our discussions, these topics were repeatedly mentioned to guide us to make the best decisions for our allocations. Looking at common teen trends in philanthropy, these areas of interest are not uncommon. The themes of community, responsibility, and equality are found in each of the three values my program had selected. We as teens are growing up in a world that is more inter-connected than ever before, and we want to do all the good we can in the areas that we best see fit.
Joanna speaking at the Saltzman Youth Panel Reception.
Relevancy is important when looking at teen giving. For example, we are currently in high school, getting a good education, thus education is relevant to us, we understand the importance of it, and we want to ensure that more people have access to it. Health is important to us because we know that simple hygiene practices and items make life healthier and more enjoyable. Our sense of giving stems from an understanding of what is important in our own lives and how we can share those resources with others. My dedication to philanthropy has only grown stronger over the years because of the strong sense of duty I feel to give back. A combination of dedication, shared values, and responsibility make teen philanthropy a powerful force for change. The positive impact of each of our different philanthropy programs on our local, national, and global communities cannot be understated. When it comes to Jewish teen philanthropy, age is truly just a number.
Joanna Sherman recently served as the High School Co-Chair of Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Campaign and on the Saltzman Youth Panel. She is currently a senior at Hawken School and will be attending Northwestern University in the fall. She has enjoyed getting to know other teens on the Youth Ambassador Council and would like to thank JTFN for this opportunity.