What good can a teenager do, sitting in their room? Plenty, it turns out.
This spring, two dozen teens gathered online for two hours, and, by the end of their meeting, had disbursed more than $2,500 to local organizations engaged in COVID-19 relief efforts.
They were brought together by JUF's Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation program, which teaches teens how to manage a foundation and use philanthropy to address community needs.
Before the coronavirus crisis, JUF lay leaders David and Susan Sherman gave a generous donation to expand Voices as well as other JUF teen programming.
When the pandemic hit, the Voices staff knew they had to pivot to a new socially distancing reality, and address the new needs generated by the crisis.
"We started looking for ways to put good into the world, when there are not a lot of ways to do that," said Genna Kahn, JUF's Program Director for Teen Volunteering and Engagement.
They landed on the idea of a giving circle, for teens to decide how to disperse funds to those addressing the crisis. Voices had previously run synagogue-based giving circles, so they adapted their curriculum for socially distant communication.
Some 25 teens--ranging from grades 7 to 12--signed up, and, in April, the teens joined a Zoom call, where they were tasked with a mission: From a pool of 15 organizations being considered to receive funds for their COVID-19 relief efforts, they must narrow the field down to four.
In the end, the giving circle disbursed grants totaling $2,630. Two recipients--JCFS Chicago and SHALVA, both supported by JUF--received funds from the Shure Charitable Trust. Two other recipients -The Night Ministry and Chicago HOPES for Kids--received funds from the Sherman contribution.
The students rose to the challenge of making some difficult and sophisticated decisions. "We are so proud of the work the teens all did, many after a long day of schoolwork," said Beckee Birger, JUF's Program Director for Teen Leadership and Philanthropy. "Everyone worked hard to make some tough funding choices, using Jewish values as a guide, deciding between 'important work'-- done by all the organizations they reviewed-- and 'urgent need,' which our community is facing because of the COVID-19 crisis."
"The teens' decisions were quick, but thoughtful," noted Kahn. "They focused on those organizations addressing immediate needs or providing direct services."
Voices staff hopes to recreate another COVID-19 giving circle in the future.
The teens reported feeling grateful and proud to be a part of the giving circle. "This was an amazing experience because everyone took something different away," said Shira Newberger, a rising junior at Evanston's Beacon Academy. "I'm so appreciative that I was able to participate and make a difference."
As another teen put it, "I felt like I finally did something during the pandemic."
To learn more about Voices, or to apply, visit