Taking the Torah to Heart: 25 years later.

Honeycomb had the honor of speaking with one of Jewish Youth Philanthropy’s first program creators, Michael Kesselman, of the Bay Area as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Seventh Grade Tzedek Fund at the Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, CA. Michael remembered the events of establishing the fund fondly, “Our daughter was heading towards her Bat Mitzvah, and we thought that all the families gave the same gift to each participant, so what if we took that money and gave the kids an experience.” Michael reminisced about this process with a smile and said that the parents discussed taking the students on a trip with the money every family was going to spend. “I asked my older daughter what gifts she still had from her Bat Mitzvah, only a couple of years before, and she showed me a trinket box.” Michael said that it would be more meaningful if the students had an experience rather than gifts which are replaced or forgotten about soon thereafter. Asking the students and parents to put the money earmarked for B’nai Mitzvah gifts into a fund, and empowering the students to become a board of directors was a break from the norm, yet Michael and the families at the Brandeis Hillel Day School were able to shift the narrative and give the students an experience which would change the direction of Mitzvah Projects there for the next 25+ years. Now, preparing for a reunion, the Honeycomb team reached out to some previous participants to find out what lasting impressions youth philanthropy experiences had on them.

On April 3rd, 1998, the San Fransisco Chronicle published an article titled, Taking the Torah to Heart, and Don Lattin wrote about this program.  What did this experience do for the participants? Honeycomb had the chance to speak with a couple alumni from this inaugural program as well as the current Program Manager from the Brandeis School in San Francisco to get a few words on what they remember from their time in the program. Dr. Elissa T. Serapio reflected fondly on her time in the program and told Honeycomb how it influenced decisions she made throughout her life, “[doing good for others] is what life is all about, is not that hard, and is not an ‘extra’… in many moments in high school college, medical school, and beyond, I took an “of course I’m going to sign up to help” approach, without ever thinking much about it. I am sure that the 7th Grade Fund helped make it easy to say “yes” to doing other good projects in my life.” Dr. Serapio’s feelings about her time in a youth philanthropy program are echoed by other alumni, as well as current teens in the program. Another former youth of the Tzedek Fund, Aaron Keyak discussed how unusual the entire idea was, “Adults would come to us, asking for money. It was backwards, usually as teenagers we were asking for money from the adults.” Keyak continues his reminiscence when thinking about the connection between B’nai Mitzvah and giving, “we tapped into an existing tradition which is already involved in the B’nai Mitzvah process and then we separated ourselves from the money and focused on the good that comes from the act of giving… The types of questions we asked in 7th grade are similar to the ones I have asked recently as a philanthropist.” Aaron and Elissa’s smiles could be heard through their words when thinking about and talking about the Tzedek Fund. Jody Bloom, Program Manager for the Brandeis School of San Francisco also spoke with Honeycomb, “I wrote my dissertation on the impact of the 7th grade Tzedek Fund… I interviewed students and parents one, two and three years after the program. I knew that it would have an impact on them as seventh graders, but I didn’t realize how deep the impact would be and how long it would last. I did not expect to learn that students felt an obligation to give back to their community.”  Michael’s goal in creating this new program was “To infuse in the bar and bat mitzvah a first-hand experience and an awakening of the Jewish value, tikun olam. With a celebration of the 25th Anniversary of this project on the calendar in May on Zoom, as many participants as possible of the 33 original board members, will come together to reflect and remember their time together… The first group was able to give $13,000 because of their own contributions as well as two separate matches. In 1999, this was no small amount of money, and in Judaism, Tikkun Olam (Healing the world) is a responsibility discussed in many ways, and my goal was to give that responsibility to the students and show them how to care about others.” Michael and the subsequent facilitators have certainly done this, and the students and participants in that first cohort, as well as all other years are answering this call, with a lot of action.

Mazel Tov Tzedek Fund on 25 years! Here is to many more years of amazing philanthropic experiences!


Title of original article attributed to the San Fransisco Chronicle, April 3, 1998; Author: Don Lattin.



Written by

Matt Bergman

Communications and Engagement Manager