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JTFN Summit 2019 Reflections: Michael

By, Michael Kesselman, consultant

I was delighted to attend JTFN’s conference last month in San Francisco, to discover the incredible depth and breadth of Jewish youth philanthropy today, to meet the dedicated professionals who are running programs across the country, and to consider the possibility of JTFN building a group of alumni, thousands of seasoned philanthropists who have the potential to expand this program into a national forum for positive Jewish identity -- for teens through young adults, both during and especially after college.   

Well into my sixties, I stood out like a sore thumb at this youthful conference. Seniority comes with advantages, and I had the good fortune to work with a class of seventh graders at a Jewish day school in San Francisco back in 1997, where we created the first hands-on Jewish youth foundation in the country. Thirty-three seventh graders (including my second daughter, Iva) pooled the money they would have spent on bar/bat mitzvah gifts to create the grant making corpus of the Seventh Grade Fund (SGF). Their dollars were soon matched by a number of incredibly-impressed adult foundations, bringing the SGF’s grant making total to about $13,000.

While establishing this pilot project was met with roadblocks and objections each step of the way - from students, parents, and day school administrators – the week after the kids’ first board meeting was held over a pizza lunch, an article appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Taking the Torah to Heart.”  The enthusiasm and momentum sparked by that headline started the project on a path to national visibility and unimagined educational and programmatic success. By the time all funds had been awarded to nonprofit agencies, SGF board members had learned about challenge and matching grants and their bar/bat mitzvah money had leveraged more than half a-million dollars of grant funds (with participation from such institutions as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Goldman Fund, and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation). 

What was most exciting to see at the JTFN Summit, is that Jewish youth philanthropy has now been institutionalized. When we started in 1997, there was no one else in the country doing what we were. There was no support system, no infrastructure, no roadmap and much opposition, which should be expected when something new comes on the scene. At the Summit I met many committed professionals who understand the value of Jewish youth philanthropy and are dedicated to improving and expanding special programs around the country. It is most encouraging to know that established Jewish institutions are now housing and funding these projects. Thirty-three kids made up the first board of directors; there are now thousands of young adults who have graduated from these programs, which bodes well for establishing a solid core of Jewish leaders in the future.  

Michael Kesselman worked for fifteen years as Senior Program Officer at the Koret Foundation in San Francisco and as Program Director at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore. Michael and his wife, Rachel, raised three daughters  in San Francisco, where they each attended Brandeis Hillel Day School.  Michael is currently working as a consultant in the field of philanthropy and as a professional sculptor.   www.KesselmanConsulting.com

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