There is no age requirement to becoming a philanthropist, as 14-year old Gabriela Selmonosky has discovered over the past year.
Gabriela, a sophomore at Alexandria Country Day School, was one of 38 teenagers to complete the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Jteen Philanthropy program. The teens collectively gave more than $27,000 in grant money to 10 local and national nonprofit organizations. At a closing ceremony on April 15 at the Federation’s headquarters in Rockville, the teens were recognized for their efforts and presented each organization with a check representing a grant allocation from the program.
“At school we do a lot of community service work but it’s not so much donating money and learning how to choose from different organizations,” said Gabriela, who was involved in making a $5,000 allocation to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Jteen Philanthropy, now in its second year, trains area Jewish high schoolers in the fundamentals of philanthropy. This year’s program was broken into three groups of teens that included separate groups of first-time participants from Northern Virginia and Maryland, and another group of returning teens from the entire area. The first-year students, she said, received a “crash course” in Jewish giving, which included technical aspects such as reading a company budget and learning what a site visit is.
The course also includes a component on Jewish values, such as tzedakah and tikkun olam. The second-year group, she said, took on more ownership in the allocation process by writing their own proposals.
“We as a federation really believe this is not just the next generation of givers, but people who can make an impact now,” said the Federation’s Manager for Teen Engagement and Philanthropy Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, who runs the program. “We want to give them a foundation in what it means to give meaningfully and intentionally. We don’t want them to think philanthropy is something for later on, when ‘I’m a millionaire.’ We want to teach teens and their families that you can make a gift at any level.”
Vinokor-Meinrath said each teen’s family contributed $360, which the Federation’s United Jewish Endowment Fund matched. Each of the three groups then watched presentations from several local and national nonprofits and decided on the organizations they wanted to allocate money to by consensus.
Brandon Schoenfeld, 15, said his group used sticky notes to narrow down the list of nonprofits they wanted to support.
“Someone would say, ‘I want to give $5,000 to this company,’ and everyone who agreed with it would hold up a blue sticky note, and everyone who disagreed would hold up a red one, and everyone who felt indifferent would hold up a yellow one,” he said. “We would go until everyone had a blue sticky note.”
Brandon, a sophomore at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, said his group decided to support DC SAFE, an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. He said the program has helped him understand the importance that even small donations can have.
“It’s not just the money we give, it’s the volunteers who use that money,” he said.
Solomon Hutchins, a 14-year old freshman at James Madison High School in Vienna, said his group chose the Israel advocacy film company Jerusalem U as one of their nonprofits to donate to, out of a collective desire to help change what he thinks is a negative public perception of the Jewish state.
“Israel is so alienated from the rest of society and given such a bad rep in modern media that it needs some advocacy on the part of the Jewish people,” he said.
Solomon said he wasn’t sure if he would be interested in the program when he first entered, but now better understands the impact of giving to Jewish organizations.
“I recommend it for people who are looking to make a positive impact on the Jewish community,” he said. “You should come with an open mind and prepared to think, ‘what would be the best to help the Jewish community around the world?’”
Jteen Philanthropy is part of a national network of teen philanthropists from Jewish institutions across the United States, said Vinokor-Meinrath. She said there are plans to expand the program to a group of third-year participants next year in addition to the other groups.
“They’ll be doing fundraising and learning the skills of making the ask,” she said.