Last June, a dozen San Diego philanthropists held a check-passing ceremony to deliver more than $20,000 they’d raised for mental health charities.
The event sounds routine, except for the fact that the philanthropists were all members of the Jewish Teen Foundation, a philanthropic council of local high school students.
Among last year’s junior philanthropists was Carmel Valley resident Josh Herz, 18, who was invited back this year to serve on the group’s leadership committee.
Herz and other teen leaders are teaching this year’s newcomers how to choose a charitable mission, find appropriate charities that serve that mission, analyze the groups’ finances, do site visits and then raise the money they need.
Herz said the teen foundation’s organizing principle is a tenet of Judaism known as “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “repair the world.”
“It’s always in the back of everyone’s mind,” said Herz, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy. “Wherever we’re going, whatever we’re doing, it’s always in line with making the community a better place.”
The Jewish Teen Foundation is a program of the Jewish Community Foundation San Diego. The local teen foundation is one of just seven such programs established around the world by the Jewish Teen Funders Network.
The program’s goal is to instill the principles of philanthropy at a young age.
“What we’re passionate about is instilling in teenagers the idea that they have so much ability and leadership to change the world around them,” said Kimber Wrosch, teen coordinator for the group.
Since its launch in 2014, the JTF has raised nearly $60,000 for causes including mental health, at-risk youth and human rights for women and children. This year’s goal is to aid the homeless affected by domestic violence and natural disasters.
Herz said he found out about the Jewish Teen Foundation in 2016 at his family’s synagogue, Temple Solel. He said giving back to the community was something he and his brother Harrison, 16, were taught from an early age by the parents, Henry and Julie Herz.
“They explained to me that I was very blessed to have a roof over my head and food on the table and clothes to wear,” Herz said. “It just kind of clicked in my head that if I have stuff and others don’t, then I should help them get this stuff.”
Since he was a little boy, Herz has donated money to the World Wildlife Fund. In 2009, he took part in the Walk for Darfur and since then has walked for cancer and run for the hungry. He has also volunteered at children’s computer camp, a veterinary hospital and Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
Lately, Herz has focused his volunteer efforts on issues he’s passionate about: cognitive science and neuroscience. The subject has personal significance because his grandparents have battled Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Last summer he interned at a cognitive development lab at UC San Diego and he recently applied to 13 universities with programs in these sciences.
One of the highlights of the Jewish Teen Foundation for Herz is that its members get to choose their funding mission each year. Last year’s mental health focus tied in neatly to his intended field of study.
“That really fueled my interest,” he said. “Before that I had been interested in the subject from a research side of my brain, but this was a completely different viewpoint, because here were people with the problems who needed help.”
Each year, the teens choose five charities to aid, four of them with local ties and one in Israel. Herz said he liked finding organizations that spent most of their money on clients, not their own administration costs.
One beneficiary last June was a desert camp program for troubled Israeli teens. The Jewish Teen Foundation’s $5,000 donation was matched sevenfold by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Raising the money wasn’t easy, Herz said, but he learned a lot about business, networking and collaboration. And handing over the money to these groups last summer was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“It showed me how far other people are willing to go to help others,” he said. “It reinforced the idea that helping repair the world is never going to go away. There will always be people who are extremely devoted and prepared to do whatever it takes to help others.”
Wrosch said the she receives up to 50 application a year for the program, which is open to Jewish teens in ninth through 12th grades. Those who are accepted each year, about 70 percent of applicants, are expected to attend 10 four-hour monthly meetings and go on site visits. The teens wear business attire at all meetings and the most engaged members — like Herz — are invited back as leaders the following year.
“Josh is such a go-getter, but he’s very understated,” Wrosch said. “Everyone will be talking and he won’t say a thing. Then when he does speak up, he’s concise, to the point and very clear. He really has tremendous drive and passion, but he isn’t your stereotypical kid who’s excitable and in your face.”
Wrosch said she’s inspired by teens like Herz because they will be positive role models for their peers in college and later life.
“The concept of Judaism is that we all have tremendous potential in this world to make a difference and one little thing can make a massive change,” she said. “It’s a Jewish belief that throughout our lives we should be constantly growing and changing. With these teens I look at them now and see the future leaders and philanthropists of tomorrow.”
--Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune