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. 

UJA Federation of New York >> <p><strong><span class="xcontentpasted1"><span style="font-size: 11.0pt; line-height: 107%; font-family: 'Cambria',serif; mso-fareast-font-family: Calibri; mso-fareast-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family: Calibri; color: #212121; border: none windowtext 1.0pt; mso-border-alt: none windowtext 0in; padding: 0in; mso-ansi-language: EN-US; mso-fareast-language: EN-US; mso-bidi-language: AR-SA;">Teens take part in a PACT team-building exercise.</span></span><span style="font-size: 11pt; line-height: 107%; font-family: Cambria, serif; border: 1pt none windowtext; padding: 0in;"> </span>&nbsp;</strong></p>

Teens take part in a PACT team-building exercise.  

This past Sunday, I had the privilege of participating in the PACT grant distribution ceremony and graduation. Hundreds of people crowded our conference center to hear the teens articulate how they came to their grantmaking decisions. Afterward, many parents and family members, brimming with emotion, came over to say that the program had opened their children’s worlds to needs and issues they didn’t know about before. Equally gratifying — seeing their teens develop the poise and confidence to speak knowledgeably about these issues.

Graduation is just the beginning. The teens will go on to college and post-college with invaluable skills that position them to be the leaders our community needs. We expect in the not-so-distant future, they’ll sit on boards and allocations committees of UJA and other communal organizations, bringing the zeal and expertise they honed those Sunday afternoons.

We have Carole and Mickey Friedman, who both passed away in 2021, to thank for being early champions of PACT. They had the foresight to understand that philanthropy is not innate; it needs to be taught, and if taught well, our community would be much stronger for it.

On what is the day before the coronation of King Charles III, it's fitting to quote Michael Lustig, one of the outgoing co-chairs of the program, who has long called PACT "the crown jewel of UJA." But here there are no gemstones, no ancient rites. Even more precious: a powerful pipeline for vibrant Jewish leadership.

And so today we do the work of polishing our diamonds in the rough, those who will in time transmit their values and vision to the next generation following them.

And the next.      

And the next…    

Shabbat shalom