More teens opting for a charitable element to rite of passage

The latest movers and shakers on the philanthropy scene may now be in the middle of a game of freeze dance. Teenagers celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs have emerged as a major charitable force — with many giving away their monetary gifts, totaling millions annually.

An eighth-grader who has severe nut allergies, Ian Callender, recently asked invitees to his James Bond-themed bar mitzvah party to donate to the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. The New York City resident’s request brought in $30,000. That money enabled the institute, housed at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, to purchase a new machine that helps doctors detect allergies.

Ian’s family asked him to consider giving away his bar mitzvah money, and the youngster decided it should go to help other people with food allergies. “Every time I go to a restaurant, I have to ask, ‘Are there nuts in this?’ and ‘Am I okay eating this?'” Ian, 14, said. “It’s been a major part of my life. I wanted to make my gift personal.”

New York party coordinator Harriette Rose Katz said about 30 percent of the 100-plus bar and bat mitzvahs she plans each year involve some kind of charitable giving component. Many families place “in lieu of gifts” note cards in the invitation envelope, she said. With so many philanthropic dollars in the hands of youngsters, Jewish communal organizations have stepped up to teach children about responsible charitable giving.

This month the New York-based Jewish Funders Network launched a division that will act as “a clearinghouse of Jewish youth philanthropy” programs across the country, said division director Stefanie Zelkind. Attaching a social action component to a bar or bat mitzvah celebration is not new. Through the 1980s, it was common for American teenagers to participate in “twinnings” — bar and bat mitzvah celebrations in honor of youngsters in the Soviet Union, where religion could not be freely practiced. These days, teenagers — often urged on by their philanthropically minded parents — are more likely to give back through a combination of charitable donations and hands-on volunteer work.

Through a bar mitzvah philanthropy program called “Give a Mitzvah — Do a Mitzvah,” 27 teenagers last year gave away a total of more than $400,000 to UJAFederation of New York charities, the program’s coordinator, Leslie Pappas, said. Federation staffers work one-on-one with teenagers to help the youngsters determine where their bar and bat mitzvah money will go and how they can get involved in related hands-on community service projects.

In 2006, one local “Give a Mitzvah—Do a Mitzvah” participant raised $53,000, which paid for heating, cooking fuel and warm clothing for impoverished, elderly Jews in St. Petersburg, Russia. Another collected $52,000 to fund outdoor adventure experiences for disabled teenagers in Israel, Pappas said.

Not all families follow the same model of bar mitzvah giving. Some pay into collective synagogue or community-based funds, and give their bar and bat mitzvah-age children the precocious responsibility of making grants with that money. Such a fund was established last year at Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side. Bar and bat mitzvah students last year met with representatives from charities before granting $9,000 to three organizations dedicated to fighting child abuse. The synagogue also gives each bar or bat mitzvah a $180 charitable gift certificate. Teenagers then donate that money to the nonprofit organization of their choice.

“It’s very easy for kids to get very big eyes and say, ‘I’m going to buy the biggest iPod that ever was,'” Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky said. The synagogue’s philanthropy projects teach youngsters that their coming-of-age ceremonies aren’t about iPods or whatever loot their bar or bat mitzvah money can buy. “It makes it, as the saying goes, a little less bar and a little more mitzvah. And I think that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.