Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Jewish teens get early start on life of philanthropy

Jewish teens get early start on life of philanthropy
  Dec 4, 2007 Arizona Daily Star  

By Stephanie Innes

For Hanukkah this year, 16-year-old Erin Olitzky asked for a "Save Darfur" bracelet and a sweat shirt from her favorite charity, Oceana.

The Catalina Foothills High School sophomore has been giving philanthropy a lot of thought lately. On the eighth night of Hanukkah, she'll be donating $34 to Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based group that campaigns to protect and restore the world's oceans.

"I'm really big on the environment, so I knew this was where I wanted my money to go," said Olitzky, who learned about Oceana in a magazine article.

The money represents 5 percent of Olitzky's B'nai Tzedek fund -- money she began raising last year through the B'nai Tzedek Tucson philanthropy program. B'nai Tzedek literally means "people of justice."

The Jewish Community Foundation administers the teens' endowment funds and gives them a 5 percent interest rate. Each year the teens are expected to donate at least $18 or up to 5 percent of their fund.

B'nai Tzedek isn't just about money. Students attend at least four B'nai Tzedek sessions per year to talk about their values, what they care about and social responsibility.

Sixty-one teens currently are in B'nai Tzedek Tucson, 28 of whom are making their first payouts during Hanukkah this year. Hanukkah, often known as the Jewish festival of lights, begins at sundown today.

"Tzedek" comes from the Hebrew word "Tzedakah," which means righteous giving -- in other words, giving as an obligation to create a just world.

Tzedakah is mentioned several times in the Torah and is one of Judaism's 613 mitzvot, the paths for serving God. "Mitzvot" is the plural of "mitzvah," which is a commandment under Jewish biblical law for individuals to make the world a more sacred and just place. Some focus on ritual and others on ethical considerations such as caring for the elderly and visiting the sick.

"Many of the sages really considered Tzedakah the most important mitzvah," said Abigail Foss, coordinator of B'nai Tzedek Tucson. "We wanted to change the notion that to be a philanthropist you have to be grown up and fairily affluent. We want the kids to see themselves as givers who can and must give."

It's a concept that Foss and the teenagers have compared to the story in Jon J. Muth's children's book "Stone Soup." The group read the book together at one of its first gatherings.

The book describes how three monks enter a village, only to find hard-hearted villagers who lock their windows and doors and don't welcome the three. When the monks begin preparing a big pot of stone soup, they pique the villagers' curiosity, and soon everyone wants to provide ingredients. As each villager opens his or her heart to give, the next person gives more.

The teens generally contribute $180 to begin their funds, and the program kicks in the difference to make $500, giving them a start. The number $180 is used because of the significance of 18 in Judaism: The Hebrew word for "life" is "chai" and has a numerical value of 18.

Youths such as Olitzky typically use money they've received as gifts, as well as getting donations from friends and family members to start their funds.

If the teens' funds haven't reached $1,000 by the time they are 18 years old, the money will be returned to help other teens' funds in B'nai Tzedek. If the funds are at $1,000, the teens may continue adding to them through the foundation, with a goal of reaching $5,000 by the time they are 30. The hope is that they will continue to maintain the funds and give throughout their lives.

Between them, the 28 teenagers will be giving money to 13 non-profit groups, including Doctors Without Borders, the American Jewish World Service and Tu Nidito, a local agency that helps children and their families as they deal with serious illness and death.

Sara Hofstadter's dog, Lilly, inspired her philanthropy of choice -- the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. Eight years ago, Sara, a 14-year-old freshman at Catalina Foothills High School, adopted the Australian shepherd mix from the local Humane Society.

A lifelong love of soccer motivated Josh Landau, a 15-year-old sophomore at Catalina Foothills, to donate his money to Grassroot Soccer, a Vermont-based charity that helps African youths to play soccer while also educating them about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The charity was co-founded by Ethan Zohn, who was the winner of CBS' television program "Survivor -- Africa."

"In Third World countries, kids are playing soccer barefoot, and with whatever they can. I thought this was a perfect organization because it uses the power of soccer to teach about AIDS and HIV. I heard about it and looked it up online," Landau said.

"If I have the money, I'll be giving to charity when I'm older, too. It's important to give to people who aren't as fortunate as me -- to give them a better life."

Tucson High Magnet School sophomore David Richelson chose a charity close to home and close to his heart -- Congregation Bet Shalom, the Conservative Jewish synagogue in the Foothills area where he grew up and continues to attend services. Because the synagogue, its members and its leaders have given him so much, Richelson said he wanted to give something back.

B'nai Tzedek Tucson, one of 37 such programs in the United States and Canada, is funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation and private donors.

Foss said that ideally, the teens will be creating relationships with the charities they support, offering not only financial help but also some of their time. The group recently brought food Downtown to the Giving Tree Feeding Project and later talked about the experience.

"The whole point is an orientation toward the world, regardless of where they end up socio-economically," Foss said. "Judaism empowers people -- everyone has to give, and you can give. It's an important notion. We don't leave the responsibility to people who are affluent. We all can and should give."

Jewish celebrations of Hanukkah begin at sundown today.

One of the Hebrew meanings of the word Hanukkah (Chanukah) is "dedication" -- a birth of life from darkness, referring to a time when Jews regained freedom of worship.

According to the Talmud (Jewish civic and religious law), the celebration dates back more than 2,000 years. The eight-day holiday celebrates the Maccabees' victory over the Syrians in the second century B.C. The Maccabees were a first- and second-century B.C. Jewish family that brought about the restoration of Jewish religious and political life.

According to Jewish belief, the Greek-Syrian Empire, also called the Seleucid Dynasty, had oppressed Jewish religious practices and defiled most of the pressed, ritually pure olive oil necessary to light the sacred eternal flame inside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Jewish teaching says that when the temple was recaptured from the empire, the remaining oil was enough to last for only one day.

But the oil in the small jar miraculously burned for a full eight days -- long enough for the gathering of a fresh supply of olive oil and rededication of the temple. The story is commemorated each night of Hanukkah with the lighting of menorahs, which have eight lights plus one helper light. They are lighted one light at a time on each night of the celebration. The Hanukkah menorah is lighted only after nightfall, which signifies the Jews' purpose to illuminate the darkness of the world until a time when the world will be filled with the knowledge of God.

About 3 percent of the Tucson-area population is Jewish, which works out to about 30,000 people. Nationwide, about 2 percent of the population is Jewish.


Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at sinnes@azstarnet.com.

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