Mass. program inspires teens to create endowments

NEW YORK — Philanthropy now begins at the age of b'nai mitzvah in a Massachusetts community.

To encourage tzedakah, a recently launched fund-raising program is offering teens a way to make donations through small endowment funds.

The program gives young people "the thrill of being a philanthropist," said Rob Katz, executive director of the Harold Grinspoon Supporting Foundation, one of the co-sponsors of the endowment program.

The B'nai Tzedek program, based in Springfield, Mass., enables each participant to set up an endowment fund of $500.

Teens are asked to designate $125 of their bar-bat mitzvah gifts. The Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which co-sponsors the program, matches that amount, and the Grinspoon foundation contributes $250.

B'nai Tzedek participants are required to donate 5 percent of their endowment funds annually to a local Jewish charity of their choice. They and their parents are encouraged to contribute additional amounts to the principal over time to maintain the fund balance.

About a dozen teens — approximately 25 percent of the b'nai mitzvah in western Massachusetts — have joined the program since it was launched earlier this year.

B'nai Tzedek is "a way of getting young people excited about Jewish philanthropy and giving through endowments," said Katz. The program is intended to develop a lifelong habit of giving tzedakah.

In the long term, this will help build up endowment foundations, said Katz, who added that the idea for B'nai Tzedek came from the Jewish Fund for Justice.

Youth Endowment Funds were created by the New York-based fund nearly 12 years ago to enable the family and friends of b'nai mitzvah to contribute at least $1,000 to establish a fund in the name of the young person.

In setting up the endowments, the young participants choose from among organizations fighting poverty that are supported by the Jewish Fund for Justice. When they turn 21, the balance is transferred to the fund or converted into a Family Endowment Fund.

Another organization, Mazon, which supports groups combating hunger, encourages teens to contribute 3 percent of the cost of their bar or bat mitzvah celebration to Mazon. Sometimes they choose to donate 10 percent of the money they receive as gifts.