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Lessons for a Lifetime of Judaism

by Dafna Laskin
Originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, July 14, 2015

[This is the final article in a four-part series about the long-term impact of Jewish teen philanthropy. Jewish teen foundations have successfully engaged a new generation of philanthropists, with thousands of teens giving away millions of grant dollars to nonprofit organizations while learning Jewish values.

As part of this series, the Jewish Teen Funders Network releases “Jewish Teen Philanthropy: What is the Long-Term Impact?” a report that features program data and alumni testimonials highlighting the powerful results of participating in Jewish teen philanthropy programs. This report follows the release of “Where Did the Money Go?” JTFN’s biennial survey of Jewish teen foundations’ grantmaking activities.

As part of our mission to create, connect, and support Jewish teen philanthropy programs, JTFN presents this four-part series, which draws upon the experiences of program leaders, staff, and alumni and their families.]

When Lisette Siegel’s son Ben moved away from home after high school, she was struck by a thought that takes hold all too frequently in Jewish families. “I dropped him off at college for the first time and told my husband, ‘We’re going to lose him, he’s not going to have any kind of interaction with Jews.’”

Indeed, it’s no secret that the years between a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah and departure from home are among the most crucial in a Jewish community’s efforts to retain members through the general tumult of adolescence and young adulthood. After Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, Lisette had looked for a way to strengthen her children’s connection to Judaism, while at the same time giving them a different perspective from the standard synagogue and Hebrew school experience.

“I knew I wanted to be involved somehow and keep my Jewish identity, but I didn’t want to go back to Hebrew school,” Ben, now 25, says. As fate would have it, 2003 was the first year of a new kind of teen program in his Princeton, NJ hometown – the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, or JCYF. The program, started by Jewish Teen Funders Network co-founder Ricky Shechtel, sought to bring Jewish teens together to participate in collective grantmaking rooted in Jewish teachings and values regarding philanthropy. Ben joined the inaugural cohort.

“There were kids from all different denominations, coming together in one place, and that was something new,” Lisette recalls.

The JCYF program lasts five years, drawing post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah age youth before they have the chance to filter out of the Jewish community and seeing them through to the end of high school.

“It was interesting for me to watch Ben as he grew with the program, expanding his understanding of Jewish philanthropy,” Lisette says. “He would come home and tell us about all the things he wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to learn about. When your child is experiencing something firsthand, you’re learning through his eyes.”

Working together as a group and with local nonprofits was exciting for Ben. “I learned how to run a meeting, how to collaborate with others,” he says. “The really important things that you’ll use in college and long after.”

A talented high school baseball player, Ben moved to Lynchburg, VA – a city of 76,000 with just one synagogue – to attend Lynchburg College, a Christian-affiliated school. “Jews were non-existent on campus,” Ben says. “It was a small school, maybe 3000 students.” When baseball didn’t work out, he focused his energy on another personal strength – Jewish identity.

Troubled by the complete lack of Jewish life on campus, Ben started the school’s Hillel – the first-ever Jewish organization on Lynchburg’s campus – his sophomore year. “It was a broken community when we started in 2010, maybe 20 people showing up to services and events,” he remembers. This year’s Passover seder drew a crowd of more than 100 people, many of whom are involved in the Hillel year-round. “When anyone asks what the best thing is that JCYF gave me, I always answer the same: JCYF gave me the knowledge and courage to start the Hillel in Lynchburg,” Ben says.

“I imagine the years between my Bar Mitzvah and high school graduation without any Jewish activity, and that could have changed everything,” says Ben. “I didn’t walk in as a super-Jew, but the Jewish community became a part of my life through JCYF.”

Ben, like numerous JCYF alumni, continues to be involved as a program advisor. Based in New York City, he regularly travels to Princeton to chaperone trips, run meetings, help out on decision day and mediate allocation meetings, guiding the teens as they decide where to donate their grant money. Lisette attends the check ceremony – when the teens present checks to the grantees, an event attended by roughly 700 community members – every year.

Looking back at that first drive home after dropping off her son, Lisette now realizes she needn’t have worried about Ben’s Jewish experience. “Exactly the opposite happened. I give JCYF a lot of credit for giving him a great skill set – to find his Jewish identity.”

As Communications Associate at JTFN, Dafna Laskin was thrilled to interview Lisette and Ben Siegel for this series. Learn more about the field of Jewish teen philanthropy and get inspired to start a program in your community!

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