Brandeis puts 13-year-olds in tzedakah drivers seat

The board members came to order, debated the merits of various charities, then voted on more than $13,000 in philanthropic grants.

Then it was time for fifth-period math class.

This was no ordinary board. These were the 30 members of the seventh-grade class at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin, meeting for their tzedakah project. Average age: 13.

Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh-grader Daniel Bileca

Now in its fifth year, the project is part of the school’s Judaic studies curriculum.

The way it works is that the students, after a lot of research, each find a nonprofit to support. They then write up reports and create promotional displays — with the hope of getting their charity a bigger piece of the pie when it comes time to vote on the grants.

It’s very much grown-up stuff.

One twist: The money comes from all the cash that would have been spent on bar and bat mitzvah presents from their classmates. The students agree to forgo those gifts and put that money into a kitty.

“The most important lesson that sticks with the kids is the difference between tzedakah and charity,” said Judaic Studies teacher Beverly Pinto, who runs the project. “It teaches the importance of what we leave, in terms of our values from one generation to another.”

The program starts at the beginning of the school year, with discussions on tzedakah, tikkun olam and mitzvot. After a few weeks of text study, Pinto has her students ponder what areas they might want to research, everything from homelessness to AIDS to Alzheimers.

“After they find their topic, they have to figure out what area of tzedakah does this fit into,” she said. “For example, we had a student who chose to research autism. She chose as her Jewish mitzvot ‘Do not put a stumbling block before the blind’ and ‘We are all created in God’s image.’ ”

One phrase stuck out for Brandeis Hillel seventh-grader Shayna Dollinger. It was culled from a Yiddish-language rabbinic source: “Wherever a child is learning, there dwells a divine presence.”

Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh-grader Shayna Dollinger

Dollinger wanted to help African schoolchildren. Four years ago on a family vacation, she traveled to the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda and other parts of East Africa, and she never forgot the people she met there.

She chose to support Asante Africa, an Oakland-based nonprofit that creates safe learning environments in Kenya and Tanzania. “I know how good an education I get,” she said, “and a lot of people there don’t have that opportunity.”

As part of her research, Dollinger interviewed an Asante Africa board member in person. That helped seal the deal for the teenager. Her charity ended up being awarded $615.

Daniel Bileca, 13, wanted to do something to help stop human trafficking. Drawing on the Torah dictum of pidyon shvuyim or “redeeming the captives,” Bileca selected Free the Slaves as his charity.

He persuaded his fellow students to designate $516 to his charity.

“In the Jewish religion, once you complete your bar mitzvah you enter adulthood,” said Bileca, who recently had his bar mitzvah. “That really played in. It really felt like I was not treated as a kid.”

The students didn’t merely stick the checks in the mail. On Jan. 24, they gathered for an assembly in the sanctuary of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. Their parents came, of course, but so did representatives from 17 of the 29 chosen charities.

One of those was Jim Huntley, director of development of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which was awarded $393 as the charity chosen by student Kayla Buki. Huntley was mightily impressed.

“These are 12- and 13-year-olds,” he said, “and every one of them got up and talked about their project. It was an astonishing range. I wish other faith traditions could connect the dots so well between responsibility and social action.”

Bileca said the experience will spur him on to lifelong philanthropy. “It’s a lot of change being done,” he said. “Five hundred dollars from one person can actually do some good.”

Added Pinto, “We’re not going to fix every problem, but we want them to see that even as 13-year-olds, they can make a difference.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.