Jessica Millman,12, held her breath as she waited to see which direction the conversation with her mother, Jennifer, was headed.
“I read an article about a girl whose mom came to her one day and let her know that all the money she would get from her bat mitzvah she would have to donate,” said Jessica’s mom. “The girl in the article was horrified and thought her mother was unfair.”
But that changed the path of the girl’s life, continued her mother. “It was a game changer; it made her feel good and made her feel powerful.”
Next, to Jessica’s relief and delight, her mother proposed the idea of starting the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle. The idea was to invite a group of Jessica’s friends from the 2021 graduating class so, together, they could pledge a donation amount from their bat mitzvah gifts and choose a recipient of the funds, to make a bigger impact with their pooled dollars. They could learn leadership skills in the process.
“And I thought, ‘Well, that seems pretty cool,’” said Jessica, who had heard about the concept of a giving circle before.
Her mother, Jennifer Mendelsohn Millman, is program director for the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation of Baltimore, a program of the The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. For more than 10 years, the group, that now numbers about 100 women, donates and decides, through a meticulous review of proposals and site visits, where their money will go.
The Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle began planning last November with meetings, complete with agendas, action items and voting sessions and included lessons about leadership skills. Though all of the girls participate in hands-on philanthropic giving with their families or social organizations, this is the first time they’ve donated their own money to a cause of their choice.
Sitting at the dining room table, where the moms and daughters — who will all celebrate bat mitzvahs at Beth El Congregation —planned, deliberated and finally decided upon the recipient of their funding, the group had plenty to say about their experience.
“It’s interesting and powerful [to work in a group] and to see everyone else’s ideas and share your thoughts with each other,” said Julie Elover, 12.
“It makes you feel really good to give with your friends,” added her twin sister, Shannon.
The girls decided which organizations to consider, researched them, presented their findings to the group and advocated for which organization to support, said the twins’ mother, Wendy Elover. “This is their group and we’re here for guidance and support,” and added. “The moms did get to vote.”
After a thoughtful but swift deliberation, the girls chose the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund, a suggestion that came from Naomi and Molly Hoffman. Local, national and international organizations were considered, but ultimately, it was important to them to support other girls their age and in their hometown.
Lana Koman, whose daughter, Nicole, was the first to become bat mitzvah in the group, said, “The planning was really great for them, they came together as a team. They had amazing ideas and really took ownership of it.”
“There’s something really powerful about asking the girls to donate their own money, not to ask other people to donate to a cause that’s important to them,” said Millman. “I know from my work running the JWGF that there’s something really powerful that happens when a group of people come together to give money. It feels different, it feels like the impact you’re making is far beyond you; it becomes more of a community event.”
An added benefit of participating in the giving circle is acquiring leadership skills. Very often, Millman learned from presentations by JWGF-funded organizations, girls tend to have a significant drop in confidence around adolescence. She thought the giving circle experience could be a way to combat that.
“A lot of [girls] apologize for things that don’t necessarily need it,” said Julie, citing what she learned. “I saw myself doing that a lot, and I realized I should fix that, and I should be more confident.”
“We talked about that it’s OK to be the one who disagrees in a group discussion, that it might help to bring out important ideas,” said Jessica. “I feel like I’ve done that sometimes, and [we also learned] to think outside the ‘pretty box’ — to think outside someone’s appearance and think of their inner beauty.”
“I’ve seen both of my girls come home and tell me stories about things they’ve noticed after hearing the leadership lessons,” said Elover. “I’ve also seen them take charge.”
The Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle is open to girls in the 2021 graduating class, and Millman, who created and will pass forward all of the materials and agendas and hopes the next class will step up to start its own circle too.
“Even if you give just a little portion, you’re still making a really big difference for other people,” said Nicole. “It doesn’t matter how much, as long as you make a difference in your community.”
There is also a website and an Instagram account, and the girls have created flyers to pass out to friends.
Though it’s tempting to open it up to well-wishing grandparents or other relatives who might want to donate, “we really want to see what these girls can do together with their own money,” said Millman. “We really want the [funds] to come from these girls so that they can see what they can accomplish together.”
Millman was thrilled about the group’s decision to donate to the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund. She thinks it’s reflective of how her daughter and friends feel so supported during their bat mitzvah year by their Jewish community — parents, friends and teachers.
“And the girls they’re giving scholarships to are in a very different position … they’re in homes that have a lot of turbulence and [they’re] not feeling the support,” she said. “And I think that it is so beautiful for this group to come together to show these girls that they do have the support of their community. And there are people out there who care about them.”
For more information about the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle