by Candice Braun P’16, ’18, ’23
Since 2002, 7th Grade students at RSS have been learning to be philanthropists by taking part in the B’nai Mitzvah Philanthropy Program. Rather than giving Bar or Bat Mitzvah gifts to each other week after week, seventh grade families contribute the money they would have spent on gifts to a single fund, and after much study, research, and discussion by the kids, this tzedakah is allocated to a variety of non-profit organizations.
The program works as follows: for the first half of their seventh grade year, students spend their advisory period discussing the responsibility of Jews to help take care of others and how to do so. They wrestle with tough questions such as how a successful philanthropist sets priorities. They learn by watching movies, studying Jewish texts, hearing stories, and sharing their own experiences.
As the year progresses, the students split into small groups based on which causes they are most passionate about. Causes have included poverty, the arts, education, and more. The students research their causes and find relevant organizations here in New York City. Once they identify organizations, they spend time learning about them to see how well they are functioning and learn to ask important questions, such as, “How much of every dollar raised is going directly to the service offered vs. to overhead?”
In the spring, the students spend a day on site, visiting the 20-25 organizations they have earmarked to support. The visits give our budding philanthropists an opportunity to hear directly from the leadership about their foundations and get answers to the questions they have about how the charities operate.
Middle School English Teacher Mr. Cory Schneider has been running the Philanthropy Program for two years. When asked what his favorite part of leading it is he replied, “Seeing the change that takes place over the course of the year. The students are told at the beginning of the year that they are going to be philanthropists. Seeing how they take on this responsibility and grow from it is really gratifying.” Additionally, Mr. Schneider loves the sense of independence the students feel at the site visits, where they are actually running meetings with executives.
When the Seventh Grade returns from their capstone trip to the South, they participate in Leadership Week at school, reflecting on everything they learned on their journey tracing the Civil Rights Movement. As part of Leadership Week, parents are invited to a simcha breakfast, celebrating the culmination of the Philanthropy Program. Mr. Schneider and the students share how they allocated the dollars raised. A highlight of the breakfast is the B’nai Mitzvah slide show: each child submits photos, typically from their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and the faculty compiles a montage celebrating this milestone year. The students have a chance to connect as a group to acknowledge all their hard and rewarding work, and to realize what an accomplishment their B’nai Mitzvah year was!
The B’nai Mitzvah Philanthropy Program is interdisciplinary education at its best. It is infused with the values of the Jewish Studies curriculum. The nature of the project asks students to call on their critical thinking skills, which they have honed through their humanities classes. Math skills are also used when it comes to analyzing the organizations’ financials and determining the best split of the pool. As students prepare to move on to secondary schools, and their adult lives, they will use all of these skills from the B’nai Mitzvah Philanthropy Program to make their mark on the world and become socially responsible leaders.