Geoffrey Altman (from Princeton), Jess Russo (Lawrence), Leah Falcon (Princeton), Leanna Glass (Lawrence) and Mason Russo (Lawrence) are current participants in the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County Jewish Community Youth Foundation.

In the past 10 years, Jewish high school students from Princeton, Lawrenceville and other nearby towns have donated $391,745 to nearly 50 local, national and international organizations through the Jewish Community Youth Foundation.

The foundation, under the auspices of Princeton-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, is an education-based program for Jewish students in eighth grade through senior year of high school that aims to provide hands-on learning experiences in philanthropic giving.

The program was founded by Ricky Shechtel, who was raised by parents devoted to philanthropy. Shechtel and her husband worked hard to instill those same values in their own three children.

“When you’ve had a rich Jewish education, [philanthropy is] part of your DNA,” Shechtel said.

Shechtel recognized the power of introducing philanthropy at a young age. She began to research ways to bring philanthropy to a wider audience of Jewish youth, and the result was the JCYF program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Shechtel said JCYF combines the Jewish values of “tzedakah” (charity) and “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) to teach teens to be “productive members of the Jewish community.” She hopes that JCYF will teach participants “to be involved in nonprofits not just with their money, but with their actions.”

Each grade consists of two cohorts composed of 20 teens each. According to Celeste Albert, the program’s coordinator, the students represent 12 elementary schools, 22 high schools and 16 synagogues, a diversity that is a draw for many participants.

“I met many friends through [JCYF] who I would not have met otherwise,” wrote Mason Russo, a senior at Lawrence High School, in an email.

Peri Feldstein, a sophomore from Princeton, said that JCYF is also “a learning experience in a social setting.” For many participants, JCYF is a way of staying involved in the Jewish community after they have celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs.

In total, each group of 20 students donates $7,200 every year, a figure funded by a combination of each student’s own $120 contribution and matching donations per participant from both the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and the Ricky and Andrew J. Shechtel Philanthropic Fund. The students meet between four and six times each year to learn about philanthropy and to discuss how to distribute their funds among the various organizations applying for grants. Each group is advised by two adults, who facilitate discussions at monthly meetings.

Judaism is an essential component of the JCYF curriculum. As early as eighth grade, participants learn about the eight-rung “ladder of giving” devised by 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides. The ladder considers helping someone become self-sufficient as the highest form of giving.

“Using your Jewish beliefs helps you focus more,” said Abby Park, a senior at Lawrence High School.

“We each, as Jews, are only caretakers of our individual wealth. It is on loan to us from God, so giving it away is an act of justice,” Shechtel said.

It is that dedication to justice that the program’s advisers hope to impress upon participants.

Marni Blitz, who began advising a group of eighth graders and has followed them through to their senior year, hopes that JCYF “will plant the seeds for a lifetime of philanthropic giving and an understanding that this is part of their obligations as being part of a community.”

The majority of organizations from which JCYF accepts grant proposals are Jewish ones.

“Of course, you have to look out for the world, but you have to look out for yourself and your community,” Feldstein said.

Still, many organizations distribute aid to non-Jewish recipients, and a few of the organizations are not Jewish at all.

“We look at who can be impacted the most,” Park said. “I would like it to go to a Jewish organization, but if there are people who are at risk or in trouble, I’d obviously like those people to be helped first.”

That sentiment echoes the progressive nature of the JCYF curriculum, which allows teens to explore philanthropy on local and international levels. Eighth graders receive proposals from local organizations, while ninth graders take on a national focus.

In 10th grade, participants contribute to Jewish arts and culture organizations, and the following year to organizations that do outreach and advocacy work. The program culminates with an emphasis on Israel.

In addition to teaching teens about the value of charity, JCYF aims to help teens distinguish between “just donating your money, and really giving back,” according to Rebecca Kaufman, an adviser who commutes from New York City for the monthly meetings. “It’s about being a responsible human being,” Kaufman said.

“You don’t need to be rich and as old as I am to stand up and be counted as part of the community,” Shechtel said.

Which is why, by their second meeting in early November, participants were already reviewing grant proposals. In the remaining sessions, they will conduct site visits to their potential beneficiaries and decide how to allocate their $7,200.

“What’s great about the program is, it’s really the teens’ decision,” Kaufman said.

The participants agree.

“It’s not just a bunch of people lecturing you,” Park said.

The advisers moderate discussions, but “have no say in where the money’s going,” she said.

“It’s a lot of showing each other what we learned and then deciding what cause and what program is most effective,” Feldstein explained.

Park added that the participants’ mentalities change over the years.

“You have that notion in eighth grade of thinking you come in with [$320], so you can decide where that goes,” she said. Now, as seniors, “you realize you’re pooling a bigger amount for everyone.”

At the end of each year, the participants host a ceremony to present checks to all the receiving organizations. As the associate director of Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life, Blitz was on the receiving end of the grant in 2008; the Allocations Ceremony is what convinced her to become an adviser the next year.

“I was so impressed by the students,” she said. “They were so focused and so articulate in wanting to help the community in their philanthropic endeavors.”

Participants gain not only valuable hands-on experience in the world of philanthropy, but also critical life skills.

“This has made me a good contributor to group discussions,” Russo said. “Being able to work in a group environment and to lead discussions is an important part of daily life,” he added.

Leah Falcon, a senior at Princeton Day School, said she has learned “how to voice my own opinions as well as listen to the opinions of others.”

Learning how to partake in group decisions has been among the most valuable lessons learned so far for Park, as well.

“As I’ve gone through the program, I’ve seen that people’s ideas are just as good as mine and they might make a valid point that some other organization might be more deserving [than my favorite cause],” she said.

Reflecting on her experiences thus far, Feldstein said, “Donating your time and your money is a big mitzvah, and something that I know I’m going to want to continue in my life. And it’s good to have a basis for how to do so properly.”

For more information on the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, contact program coordinator Celeste Albert at (609) 987-8100 or go online to the JCYF website, jfcsonline.org/jcyf.html.