So many of us start to figure out who we are and what we believe in during our teen years. We discover we have strong opinions and a voice that’s worth listening to. As the participants of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Giving Initiative for Teens discovered, that can be a powerful feeling.

“It’s important to use your voice,” said 17-year-old Boaz Malakoff. “You can’t be afraid to be the lone voice advocating for what you believe in.”

Malakoff, a junior at Mercer Island High School, was one of 34 high schoolers participating in the J’s new philanthropy program, the Giving Initiative for Teens (GIFT). It’s part of a national program that teaches teens about grant-making, non-profit management, fundraising, and Jewish values. It encourages engagement in the community and empowers teens to be part of the grant-making process from start to finish, as they work together to raise and allocate funds to distribute to local non-profits.

The results of the inaugural year? More than $21,000 in grants and a group of engaged and energized teens who are confident in standing up for what they believe in.

Guided by the Jewish values of “compassion” and “do not stand idly by,” the teens selected two funding priorities for the year: domestic violence and mental health.

They conducted site visits of the applicant organizations, which inspired 16-year-old Danielle Lavitt, because it brought their priorities into focus. “I don’t have to face these challenges in my daily life, so it was good to get insight into the issues that exist and what people really need,” she said.

Taking the things they learned during the site visits and making decisions that would have measurable impact was important to Matt Feldman, 16. “It’s about helping people and seeing the impact our values can have on others.”

When it came time to decide which organizations to award grants to, Malakoff said the discussions were always lively and passionate, and helped him realize his belief system can be applied outside of synagogue. “It showed me that Judaism can have a real-world impact beyond the spiritual aspect,” he said. “GIFT helped me figure out how to use Jewish values to make a difference.”

Not only did the program get the teens to explore their Jewish values, it also connected them to Jewish teens from across the community. Although the participants all come from Jewish backgrounds—attending Jewish summer camps, having a bar/bat mitzvah, or participating in youth groups—Lavitt noted that it can be hard to stay connected when they’re pulled in so many different directions. “It’s hard to get to temple as often as I used to, but my monthly GIFT meetings helped me stay connected to the community and to other Jewish teens,” she said.


The first year of GIFT wrapped up on May 22 with a Grant Ceremony to award the money they had raised to six local organizations: Eastside Legal Assistance Program, Jewish Family Service, Kent Youth and Family Services, King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, Mary’s Place, and Sound Mental Health.

Applications are now open for the 2019-20 school year. Mentors and teachers can also nominate students. Details and application forms can be found here. Application deadline is May 31.