Photo courtesy of Honeycomb
Photo courtesy of Honeycomb

Philanthropist Ricky Shechtel used to wonder who would replace her when she could no longer serve the Jewish community the way she does now.

“I was on all these boards, sitting around all these tables, and I’m in my 40s, I’m in my 50s and I’m thinking, who’s going to be sitting at this table in 20 or 30 years? Who’s going to care about the stuff that we care about?”

Nowadays, Shechtel feels relatively confident that younger Jews will take up the mantle. That’s largely because of the work of organizations like Honeycomb, a program of the Jewish Funders Network, which she co-founded in 2006.

For the past 14 years, Honeycomb, formerly the Jewish Teen Funders Network until its recent rebranding, has been bringing philanthropy education and experiences to Jewish youth around the globe. With the hiring of a new executive director, Wayne Green, the network is expanding its offerings to include new trainings, resources and consulting services, and breaking new ground by creating models for teaching younger children about philanthropy.

“Youth philanthropy offers teens the experience of taking a hands-on approach to using real dollars to make changes in the world,” Green says. “It’s an opportunity to take issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health, Black Lives Matter, the environment, gun control, women’s issues… and to really think about them in a strategic way and about how they can influence change by using philanthropic dollars.”

At the same time, Honeycomb “offers deep exploration of Jewish values and mitzvot (principles), which connect and strengthen Jewish identity,” says Green, who explains that teens can participate regardless of their financial resources.

“We provide all the educational resources, and we develop and deliver training to professionals in the field that they can use with kids,” says Green. Currently, Honeycomb provides programming in more than 100 communities in the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia.

A typical Honeycomb program based at a Jewish community center might include 70 teens broken up into three groups, Green says. The three groups all receive the same instruction about philanthropy, but each group applies what they learn to an issue they have collectively chosen to fund. For example, Green says, “Group 1 may have decided on substance abuse, and Group 2 may have decided on education and literacy and, Group 3 may have decided on Israel.”

The teens learn as much as they can about their issue and familiarize themselves with the nonprofit organizations working in that field. Together, they develop a call for proposals, which is sent to those nonprofits. The organizations can then apply for the grants the teens are funding. Once the grant applications are received, “the teens review the proposals as a group, and through consensus, the proposals are narrowed down,” Green says. “Then the teens do site visits and then they decide based on the funding they’ve raised how they will allocate out. Each year, they may have one, two or sometimes three organizations they may allocate to.”

Shechtel says youth philanthropy is a critical part of keeping young Jews engaged in Judaism after they complete their bar and bat mitzvah studies.

“When people talk about [ways to build children’s] Jewish identity, they sometimes talk about the pillars—Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, Birthright Israel [trips].… Most kids, between bar mitzvah and Hillel [a Jewish college organization], if they don’t go to some sort of Hebrew school program that their parents make them go to, it’s a wasteland. There’s nothing.”

Shechtel believes that involvement in Jewish teen philanthropy empowers young people and is a great vehicle for delivering continuing Jewish education.

“There are lots of charitable people in the world and they’re not all Jews,” says Shechtel. “But the way we think about philanthropy is very specific. And it’s based on the teachings from Maimonides, from the Talmud, from the Torah. And I want these kids to be proud. I want them to understand it. And I love the idea that you don’t have to be a wealthy person to give back. According to the Torah, it is incumbent on even the poorest person to give charity because we’re all here to help one another.”

Like Shechtel, Laura Lauder, cofounder of the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund and cofounder of the Jewish Teen Funders Network Foundation Board, Incubator believes that all Jewish teens should have the opportunity to learn about philanthropy. Lauder’s Foundation Board Incubator, established in 2014, provides seed money to fund Jewish youth philanthropy programs around the world. The money is used to hire and train leaders who will teach teens about Jewish philanthropy. Lauder says good training and talented leaders are the key to making youth philanthropy programs successful.

“Not everyone can inspire teens to want to do this,” Lauder says. “So one of the things Wayne Green and the whole team at Honeycomb and the Jewish Funders Network did is, they created a kind of handbook for the communities that we give this money to, to find and hire and train the right kind of people to do this work. And then we convene those people and train them as well.”

Lauder is especially pleased that her incubator funds youth philanthropy programs in Israel, where the culture of charitable giving is still emerging. “And what we found out was, if we can get the kids interested, they could teach the parents.… What is amazing is that, when you give kids these life experiences, they live up to it later in life.”

Green says that teens who resist being involved with other Jewish programming often respond positively to Jewish philanthropy programs.

“[Honeycomb’s] programs are pluralistic, and they’re designed specifically for teens to experience Judaism in a way that they can grapple with, that they can connect to, because it is about understanding what are your personal values.… Teens care about the environment, they care about gun control, they’ve seen the marches. This provides them a real platform to engage in a program that teaches them strategically about making change and infusing the Jewish experience into that, but not making it religious,” Green says.

“We did a study that found that participating in these programs helps to strengthen their Jewish identity, helps to connect them back to their Jewish community. And for us, that’s really critical to the experience of trying to support the infrastructure of Jewish communal life.”