How to use Jewish teen philanthropy for Civic Discourse

By Danielle Segal

There is a fine line between a debate and an argument. All too often, we are pulled into an argument, where everyone is speaking and no one is really listening. A debate, however, considers both sides, offers opinions and requires listening and responding.

In 2016, the New York Times asked teenagers to participate in what they called the Civil Conversation Challenge in order give teens the opportunity to talk openly about their different opinions, a feat that the New York Times claimed “many adults were unable to [do]”[1]. This online forum allowed teens to discuss key topics that are affecting our world today, using the skills of “respectful, informed conversation”, looking for “civil, productive discussions between students.” [2] They found that, overall, the teens engaged with respectful language, backed up their answers with reputable sources (and questioned other people’s sources!), used personal observations, and demonstrated open-minded attitudes. [3]

There exist some excellent resources and methodologies in civil discourse for the secular education world (Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance, to name just two), and supplementary Jewish educational and leadership programs can also lend their expertise to the ever-growing need for civic education.

Disagreements are part of our Jewish tradition! Think you know how to light a Chanukah menorah? …Hillel and Shammai had a famously different opinion about how the Chanukah candles should be lit[4]. Argument and debate are so intrinsically linked to our Jewish heritage that the Talmud itself is a series of commentaries and opinions about ancient texts. Not unlike a Facebook conversation thread, Rabbis and scholars would leave notes, opinions and personal interpretations about other people’s statements. Rabbi A might write a theory, Rabbi B writes “I agree with Rabbi A!”, then Rabbi C says “I disagree with both of you, here is my interpretation!”. These beautiful debates lovingly preserved in written Jewish texts, offer several points of view, with no clear right or wrong answer. Our people’s longstanding relationship with disagreements makes us poised to debate, reflect and questions issues.

In Jewish teen philanthropy programs, where group decisions are made about grantmaking, guided by Jewish values and Jewish text exploration, these programs provide moments of intersect, where civil discourse meets Jewish tradition. Several elements of a teen philanthropy program allow teens to flex their civil discourse muscles in a contained, supported environment, almost like a lab where structured discussions can take place. However this lab is different; even though the environment is structured, the skills, conversations and decisions do affect the outside world, not only with the money being granted, but also in giving teens the tools to change the world for the better.

“Learning to understand how differently people can view a single topic and work around it,” says Joshua Drossman, a member of the JTFN Youth Ambassador Council and the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, Princeton, NJ, “It takes a lot of patience and listening…”

Natalie Korach (JTFN Youth Ambassador Council member and Saltzman Youth Panel at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland) explains a difficult, but rewarding part of the grantmaking process: “By far the most difficult is coming to consensus with other people. When your own values come in conflict with others it makes it extremely hard to know whether you’re doing the right thing. This is overcome by practice.”

…and this practice can be achieved through Jewish teen philanthropy! So in a world where our opinions can be broadcast far and wide and where teens can lead the way in promoting change, here are just some ways that Jewish teen philanthropy programs serve not only as a Jewish identity-building and giving experience, but also a catalyst for ongoing civil discourse:

Shared values:
Values are not objective and discussing something so subjective can be sensitive. At the start of the teen giving experience, an in-depth Jewish values exploration occurs, so that group values can be formed from personal ones. The act of creating a shared group value from a deeply personal one takes both introspection and an acknowledgement of the collective group opinion. The process of values exploration creates their mission statement, which is the backbone for the entire program and establishes the culture for civil discourse within the program.

Learning to be advocates:
As part of a program, teens conduct site visits to non-profits in order to perform due diligence when deciding on grant recipients. The teen simultaneously become representatives from their program, interviewer to the nonprofit organization and advocates for their chosen need-area. This duality (or triality!) requires an acute awareness of other people’s opinions, and knowing when and how to ask questions. The nonprofit representatives might say something you don’t agree with, or your preconceptions might be challenged by going on a site visit (for better or worse).

Coming to consensus:
At the end of a program cycle, an important decision needs to be made: where will the money be granted? This decision is not put to a vote, where a simple majority wins. The teens must come to consensus – the ultimate demonstration in civil discourse. All members of the board must be in agreement as to the recipient (s) of the granted dollars. The teens discuss, debate, examine, explore, and question so that all members of the group can feel heard in the decision.

Jewish teen philanthropy is the natural vehicle for civil discourse education within the Jewish educational sphere. By learning to use “respectful, informed conversation”, teens in these programs are using the skills of civil discourse to make real change with real money.

Want more information about Jewish teen philanthropy or want to start a program in your community? contact us at jtfn@jtfn.org

Danielle Segal is the Program Manager at the Jewish Teen Funders Network

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/learning/lesson-plans/ideas-for-productive-discussion-reflections-on-our-civil-conversation-challenge.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/03/learning/our-civil-conversation-challenge-for-teenagers.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/learning/lesson-plans/ideas-for-productive-discussion-reflections-on-our-civil-conversation-challenge.html

[4] Talmud, Masechet Shabbat 21b

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