I come to our offices every now and again on Sundays to catch up on some work. Usually, I appreciate the quiet with little distraction. But on occasion, I enjoy some happily distracting company: a group of about 150 inspiring philanthropists, spread across multiple UJA conference rooms, passionately debating how to do the most good for our community.
Oh, and did I mention they’re all high school students?
My Sunday office colleagues are participants in UJA-Federation’s Philanthropic Advisory Council for Teens (PACT), a place for nascent leaders to learn the ropes of philanthropy — in between SAT prep, midterms, and all the usual stresses of high school.
Here’s how it works: Teens are divided into small groups, each tasked with developing a mission statement that will guide their charitable focus. For example, a mission from one group reads: “To fund organizations that address the high poverty rates among immigrants and refugees serving children, families, and older adults in New York.”
Another mission: “To fund organizations that address the issue of antisemitism and conflict across communities through education and community engagement focusing on teens and young adults in New York, in Israel, and around the world.
Which is to say, the kids are alright!
Despite growing up in the age of social media, despite juggling intense academic and extracurricular schedules, they’re learning to see a world of need beyond themselves. Perhaps having lost childhood years to the pandemic, they were already primed. They’ve learned it’s not the crisis that defines you, but how you respond to a crisis, collectively and individually.
Once the teens develop their mission statements, the real work begins. They have robust conversations about whether to grant larger sums to fewer grantees, or smaller sums to more. Should more go to Jewish causes or nonsectarian? Global or local? They argue about which nonprofits can best achieve their mission. The teens also raise funds, learning to make the case for their causes. The work they’re doing these Sundays mimics, on a smaller scale, what takes place Monday to Friday at our offices.
The teens represent the wonderful diversity of our community: coming from 49 schools (Jewish, public, and private), and 51 synagogues across the denominational spectrum. The program is available for all four years of high school, with the older teens growing into senior advisory roles. And since its launch 10 years ago, 600 teens have raised $1.8 million, allocating 200 grants to 66 UJA partners.