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Making the Investment

by Max Levitt,
Founder and Director of Leveling the Playing Field, Inc. 
Originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy, June 15, 2015

This article is Part 2 in a 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.

I founded Leveling the Playing Field (LPF), a nonprofit organization that works to expand participation of disadvantaged youth in sporting activities, in 2011. One in five underserved families does not involve their kids in athletics because they cannot afford the equipment, so LPF collects used and excess sporting equipment, distributing the gear and enabling more children to ‘stay in the game.’

A large part of our operations at LPF are carried out by young volunteers, who are often dropped off at our warehouse by parents concerned that volunteering and learning about nonprofit work isn’t having the intended effect on their kids. “I can’t seem to get Josh to enjoy his volunteer projects,” worries one parent. “It’s hard for Daniel to really understand why it is important for him to come here and help out the organization,” laments another.

Hearing their uncertainty, I explain to them that volunteering and youth engagement in philanthropy isn’t only an experience to be appreciated in the moment – it’s a long-term investment, building core values and skills that set their children up for a future of giving and service.

I explain to parents that though I founded my own nonprofit organization at a relatively young age, I did not grasp the importance of my teen philanthropy experience until I was in college – and that my drive to help others was a direct result of my time with the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute, or JYPI, in Rockville, MD.

I can vividly remember the bombshell my parents dropped one Sunday morning roughly a dozen years ago: they had signed me up for a Jewish teen foundation, which was set to meet later that day. That’s right – an extracurricular Jewish program on a Sunday, and during football season, no less. My parents had always made volunteering and giving a family activity, encouraging us to help others in the Washington, DC area – but the truth was that I’d have gladly swapped donating my time to the less-fortunate for playing video games at a friend’s house.

For the next few months, I reluctantly spent my precious Sundays with a group of teenagers visiting numerous community organizations, and I can admit now that at the time, I neither appreciated nor grasped the opportunity my parents had given me. We were getting hands-on experience learning about various ways nonprofits give to those who are less fortunate, and though I understood the mission and financial need of these organizations, I did not fully comprehend the scope and importance of their work. After ‘serving my time’ engaging in collective grantmaking with my peers, I headed off to Syracuse University, and adulthood.

The idea for LPF struck during my senior year at college. Having worked extensively in sports at the recreational and professional levels, I noticed a continued waste of sporting equipment. Wondering if something better could be done with this gear, the memories of my JYPI experiences immediately returned, illuminating the path to creating my own nonprofit. We had visited organizations that furnished lower income families with essential items like canned food, winter clothes and beds for their children to sleep in, so I already knew something about the day-to-day operations of a charitable organization. At the same time, I had also learned how nonprofits operate as businesses. I was well-versed in fundraising, grantmaking, and the support that financial contributions can give to the overall mission of nonprofits. With this wide-angle understanding of the mechanics of giving, I recognized not just how big a difference otherwise-wasted sporting equipment could make in kids’ lives – but just how prepared I was to successfully take LPF from an idea to reality.

Perhaps most simply, and without really knowing it, I had developed in JYPI a powerful understanding: there are those less fortunate in this world, and we have a responsibility to help them rise above their circumstances. When worried parents come to the LFP warehouse, unsure if their child is getting the most out of their Jewish teen philanthropy experience, I remind them of the long-term investment they’re making. Young people can go their entire lives not realizing how fortunate they are to have a bed to sleep in, parents to call, or even a meal to eat. Learning to appreciate those privileges, so often taken for granted, is not only a beautiful thing – it’s a beautiful way to live.

Max Levitt is the founder and director of Leveling the Playing Field, a nonprofit that reclaims and distributes used sports equipment to disadvantaged youth. Max is an alumnus of the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute in the Washington DC area. A graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in sports management, Max lives in Rockville, MD. He can be reached at mblevittlpf@gmail.com.

Visit JTFN’s Teen and Alumni Voices page for more perspectives on the power of Jewish teen philanthropy.