A Wider Identity

Every month, Elkins Park resident Eva Chudnow and other girls get together to talk about being young and Jewish.

These sessions aren’t about intense formal study of the religion; they use drama, dance and art to confront the challenges of adolescence and to explore how Judaism can offer guidance.

They’re “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” – a national program based in Fort Washington that is new on the landscape of Jewish nonprofits. It is one of 50 groups that made the Slingshot ’06 list of “the most innovative nonprofit organizations and projects in North America that are engaging Jewish Gen Y’ers.”

Slingshot ’06 is a project developed by 21/64, a division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. It is a guide for organizations and individual givers who want to look beyond the usual avenues of Jewish philanthropy.

There are organizations whose missions involve “Jews of color” and Jewish environmental bike rides. There is a record company that has launched the career of a Hasidic reggae rapper and developed a hip-hop seder. Another group has reinvented the mikveh ritual pool as a center for Jewish spirituality and learning.

The question for the new generation of philanthropists is: “How can I honor my parents’ and grandparents’ legacy if I have different interests based on my current community?” said Sharna Goldseker, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

The Slingshot ’06 50 were selected from a list of 200 organizations nominated by an independent committee of people who work on the staffs of foundations. The listing has its roots in the meetings of Grand Street, a group of 60 Jews ages 18 to 28 who sit on the boards of their family foundations. They are young people of means who are beginning to make decisions about millions of dollars in charitable donations.

“We may lack experience in the philanthropic community and in established business careers, but we are experts in what people in our generation find interesting and engaging,” said Scott Belsky, 25. Belsky, who splits his time between Boston and New York, is an associate board member of his family’s $35 million Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, which gives away $1.4 million a year.

Belsky and Grand Street founder Danielle Durchslag, whose great-grandfather founded the Sara Lee Corp., are part of a generation that will be involved in a great shift in wealth from one generation to the next.

Researchers predict at least $41 trillion will change hands within families from 1998 to 2052, and at least $6 trillion will go to charity, according to the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.

Although younger philanthropists have similar inclinations as their grandparents and parents, they also have their own unique sensibilities.

Also at work are overall charitable-giving trends that find campaigns focused on a central organization giving way to unprecedented diversification, said Gary A. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

Studies show that young Jews are proud of their heritage, but many shun membership in formal organizations and speak of having “multiple identities,” and being Jewish is just one, said Amy Sales, director of the Fisher-Bernstein Institute for Jewish Philanthropy and Leadership at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

“The result is proliferation of niche groups under a Jewish umbrella,” Sales said. “So you’ll have the feminist, vegan, ecology Jews who meet once a week.”

Danielle Durchslag’s family foundation has an endowment of between $380 million and $400 million. Durchslag calls herself a “classic near-failed case.”

“I detested Jewish camp. I hated Hebrew school. My bat mitzvah was predominantly a negative experience,” Durchslag said. “But in college, I started to realize myself Jewishly through culture and religious venues that spoke to me better.”

Durchslag founded Grand Street after attending a conference where she met other young Jews but found no programming on Jewish philanthropic interests. Today, Grand Street members are planning to form a charitable fund that will generate contributions for the nonprofit groups named annually to the Slingshot list.

This year, another group with ties to Philadelphia also made the cut. Jewish Funds for Justice is a product of a merger between the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund and the New York-based Jewish Fund for Justice.

The group marshals financial resources, trains leaders, and does synagogue-based community organizing on behalf of social-justice causes, said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of Philadelphia, the group’s vice president for programs.

Rosh Hodesh has 22 groups throughout the Philadelphia area and is a project of Moving Traditions, a national group that seeks to expand and adapt the practice of Jewish ritual. In Rosh Hodesh, group leaders incorporate Jewish themes as the girls consider issues such as body image and relationships with parents, boys and girlfriends. Moving Traditions is also developing a new initiative for boys.

“I think I’m a more confident person,” said Eva Chudnow, 13, who’s been in Rosh Hodesh for three years.

Chudnow says she’s learned about “Jewish heroines and famous women who stood up for rights and stuff, stereotypes and how people believe women can’t rule the world, skinny models and that you shouldn’t try to live up to that, and how other people are experiencing being a teenage girl, and I feel like I’m not the only one.”

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