Perhaps the most moving moment of the recent Abrams Hebrew Academy eighth-grade trip to Israel came when the students visited Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, a rehabilitation and recreation center for wounded soldiers and victims of terror.
The young people were first shown what last year's eighth-grade class at Abrams had accomplished at the center. Thanks to a donation they made, a bare room had been transformed into a media and recreation space, complete with television set, pool table and computer. The room now provides a variety of ways for those served by the center to relax.
But an even more significant encounter came when the group watched a rehabilitation class. Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, a teacher who accompanies the children each year, said that he sensed a change in the students, who saw patients experiencing pool therapy during the tour.
"They had empathy before we came, but to be face to face with a soldier who is an amputee — you see in the kids' faces a change. Adult empathy comes to the forefront, and a determination to give. You see it in their eyes."
Ben Dayanim, 14, of Bala Cynwyd, said that he hoped that he and his classmates would give tzedakah to Beit Halochem.
"It is just a great cause," he said. "It is so important for people who have been injured, and for wounded soldiers, to have a place to go and to have support."
Tzedakah — and all its implications — was the point behind the day school's trip to Israel, both this year and last. Instilling in students a love of Israel and a life-long commitment to giving back to the Jewish community have long been cornerstones of the curriculum at Abrams in Yardley. For this year's class, those two passions came together and culminated in gifts to nonprofit organizations throughout the Jewish state.
The Particulars of Philanthropy
Together with the school's director, Rabbi Ira Budow, the 40 students in this year's eighth grade studied philanthropy — both Judaism's views on giving and the practical side of choosing recipients. As a result, students were able to formulate a list of what they felt to be the most important questions for a foundation to answer.
"I want to know who else is donating to a cause before I make a decision," said Elizabeth Carlson, 14, from Yardley, adding that "if the money is meant to go to a building expansion or similar project, I want to see that they are going to meet their goal, and that the project will go through."
Others expressed concern about the overhead an organization has, while some wanted to know how long a particular group had been around, and whether it had a proven "track record of success."
Samantha Brandspiegel, 13, of East Windsor, N.J., said for her, "knowing what part of the population they serve — either that they are serving a large part of the population or a group that is not really served by anyone else" — is key.
Their concerns eventually became a list of questions that accompanied the class as they traveled to Israel this month together with Budow, several other staff members, and several thousand dollars in grant money from the Jewish Teen Funders' Network, which they hoped to distribute to Israeli charities.
The teen program, a project begun in 2006 by the Jewish Funders' Network, seeks to encourage philanthropy, based on Jewish values, among the young. The group has given its support to the philanthropy project at Abrams since 2007.
Over the course of their Israel visit, students met with a half-dozen or so different organizations that worked on such services as outreach, hunger relief and assisting victims of terror.
After their graduation ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, teens met with Israel Defense Force soldiers at their base in Bethlehem. The soldiers showed them their synagogue, and requested help in refurbishing it and purchasing more siddurim and other books to accommodate an increase in attendance.
Tamara Weg, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., was particularly moved by the soldiers' request.
"I like the idea of helping them to help all of us," she said.
In the end, this year's students decided to give $3,000 to the Beirav Synagogue, with an additional grant of $1,500 going to the IDF synagogue, and $1,000 each to Beit Halochem and to the Central Fund for Israel, the latter funds earmarked for needy families in Gush Etzion.