Summary

  • EA for Jews is considering launching an EA intro programme for 11-13yo Jews, around the time of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, when it is common to engage with charity and altruism for the first time.
  • Section 1 of this post explains why the Bar / Bat Mitzvah process is an appealing opportunity, especially in the broader context of EA outreach to younger audiences.
  • Section 2 outlines key elements of the proposal in more detail, including outreach to parents, in-person sessions with students, incorporation into the ceremony itself and post-programme follow-up.
  • Section 3 highlights several challenges which we anticipate, including follow-through lag, complexity of ideas, parental resistance and safeguarding.
  • We request thoughts and feedback (including discouragement) on any element of the proposal, especially on risks and obstacles which we may not have mentioned.
  • We are also keen to speak to people interested in helping out or advising in any way, big or small - if this applies to you or you want to learn more, please fill in this form.

Background

Jewish children have a coming of age ceremony called a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (collective and gender-neutral: B’nai Mitzvah) at the age of 12 or 13. The format differs between denominations of Judaism, but it is universally considered the time when a child becomes a responsible adult within the Jewish community. 

It is common for children to do something for a charity around their B’nai Mitzvah period. This is partly because practising social responsibility is considered important in the context of becoming a responsible adult. In some communities, it is also because children receive many gifts, and so are encouraged to give back to those in greater need (for example, by requesting donations instead of gifts). As a result, many Jewish charities offer specific B’nai Mitzvah programmes, including ‘twinning schemes’, to encourage children to support their organisation (see, e.g., Yad Vashem and World Jewish Relief). 

EA outreach has traditionally focused on university students, but there has been growing interest in targeting younger audiences, such as high school students (see posts here, here, here and here). Younger audiences may be especially promising for several reasons (taken from this post): 

  • They are less likely to have fixed opinions about the best way to do good than people who have been taking altruistic actions for some years.
  • They may be more open to new ideas than older people in general. On past experience, they may also be more open to specific elements of EA thought, such as the possibility of extinction, awareness of privilege, and willingness to engage with controversial ideas in general.
  • They are in a better position to make impactful life decisions than university students or adults, as they haven’t sunk time and resources into a potentially lower impact path.

B’nai Mitzvah children are a younger demographic than EA has previously targeted, so a successful programme could have broader implications for outreach (though high-quality evidence may be slow). There are also challenges associated with younger age groups, which we explore below

EA for Jews proposes to develop a programme for B’nai Mitzvah-age Jews which introduces them to key EA concepts, encourages them to select a high-impact charity for their B’nai Mitzvah fundraising and provides routes for continued engagement. 

We expect the majority of impact to come through the future engagement of programme participants (e.g. career, donation and student volunteering decisions), with some potential impact coming from direct fundraising around the ceremony and broader sharing of EA ideas within the community.

Suggested pilot programme

An initial pilot could work with a small cohort of B’nai Mitzvah children in one trial location. If successful, this model could be introduced at a larger scale to Jewish communities around the world. 

A pilot would include the following elements:

In-person classes

  • A series of monthly sessions (e.g. 4-6 sessions) with a small group of children preparing for their B’nai Mitzvah. This could be done in-person on a Sunday or weekday evening, focusing on several local target communities - in line with existing B’nai Mitzvah and Jewish education programmes.
  • Sessions would focus on introducing core EA concepts in accessible and engaging formats, rather than presenting ‘all of EA thought’. Example sessions could focus on: what we mean by doing good; our responsibility towards others and our ability to help others (e.g. drowning child); prioritisation in doing good (e.g. elements of ITN framework, giving game with real money); specific examples of cause areas; expanding moral circle; EA and Judaism; putting principles into action.
  • Capstone project to be completed during the programme, such as a reflection piece on what they have learnt and how they might maximise their impact over their lives (which they could share with guests and others).

Incorporation into the B’nai Mitzvah process

  • B’nai Mitzvah children typically address the congregation by reading from and then commenting on a portion of the Torah that corresponds with their birthday. Programme participants could potentially discuss an EA principle they learned about or found meaningful, introducing these concepts to their peers/friends who will be in attendance. The programme could help them to prepare this, just as a Rabbi would help to prepare the religious elements.
  • It is common for children to ask guests for donations or to pledge a proportion of what they receive to charity - we could encourage the selection of an effective charity.
  • The programme could contribute e.g. £200 towards their EA charities to get them off the ground if they are doing a fundraiser.
  • Depending on whether they, their parents or their donating guests are concerned about a Jewish-secular split, some of the donation elements could be run in coordination with a Jewish version of the Giving Multiplier platform.

Post-B’nai Mitzvah follow-up

  • One central concern with this age group is the lag time between the programme and future impact. Follow-up is crucial to increase the likelihood of continued engagement.
  • Mentorship: We could pair participants with older (17-22ish) young adult role models in their community who are already involved in EA. Mentors could arrange to meet every few months and guide them towards further reading or actions as appropriate. This may be attractive to Jewish parents, inspiring to the children, and an opportunity for young adults to deepen their own engagement.
  • Community: Cohorts would ideally be closely related in age and geography, such that fellow participants may remain close. We could also pair up past participants with current ones and run an annual reunion.
  • Other options include: establishing fundraising drives in their synagogue or school, setting up an EA group at school (perhaps with older students), attending an annual summer EA retreat, attending an EA global conference, taking part in an in-depth fellowship and being linked to other high-school EA initiatives.

Outreach

  • Outreach could be conducted through synagogues, at Jewish events (e.g. Limmud), and through Jewish press channels. Once established in certain communities, it could spread by word-of-mouth, especially since participation in the programme would be publicised to guests at the B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies.
  • Parents would likely be the primary decision-makers, though children would also have to be keen. The programme could be framed as a way to turn the B’nai Mitzvah into something more meaningful, a way to embrace a love for helping others from the point of adulthood and an initiative which supports you to have a greater lifelong impact (in contrast to existing ones run by charities which ask you to support them by raising a certain amount).
  • We could potentially increase the appeal through prestige, for example by making the programme selective, securing the backing of religious authorities and/or arranging a graduation event. The inclusion of older mentors, free dinner and an initial £200 towards the fundraising goal would also help.

Potential challenges

  • Follow-through: In contrast with university students who are beginning a career, there are fewer obvious follow-up actions which 12 year-olds could do if they are excited by EA and therefore a greater risk of pre-impact drop-out. This was cited as the greatest obstacle when SHIC reached out to high-schoolers; B’nai Mitzvah children are even younger. Some initial suggestions to maintain engagement are included above and additional ones would be welcome (if the objective is considered plausible).
  • Complexity: Many concepts in effective altruism are complex and may be difficult for children to understand. Relatedly, there is a risk that in watering down the content, EA is misrepresented to programme participants or miscommunicated by them to others. To mitigate this, the syllabus would have to focus on core ideas which introduce an EA mindset and can be understood by this age group. Evidence from previous projects suggests that this is surprisingly manageable.
  • Controversy / dealing with parents: At this age group, participation is likely to be driven or at least moderated by parents. As such, we need to be mindful of their perceptions, including elements of EA thought which may be considered controversial or unhealthy (e.g. drowning child, comparing charities, factory farming, existential risk). The programme would also need to be framed as ‘providing information’ rather than ‘persuading’, since concerns over the latter would be more significant with this age group.
  • Safeguarding: Working with this age group involves safeguarding responsibilities which do not apply to older audiences. Those involved with the programme would have to be aware of and compliant with best practices.

Request for comment and involvement

We would love thoughts and feedback on any element if this proposal, especially on challenges which we have highlighted or missed, including feedback that we should not proceed at all. 

Separately, we are keen to hear from anyone who may be interested in helping out with the project in ways big or small - being Jewish is not a requirement! Please fill in this form or email us at shalom@eaforjews.org.

Many thanks to those who provided input on the concept and draft, including Ben Schifman, Sofia Davis-Fogel, Abe Tolley, Tom Cohen, Zach Brown, Jacob Arbeid, Eli Rose and others from EA for Jews. 

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:12 AM

I think this is definitely feasible. I was convinced by the ideas of Effective Altruism as early as age 12 and donated a significant portion of my Bar Mitzvah gifts to The Life You Can Save.

Someone who has contributed to Jewish thought in this area (i.e. our individual power to usher in a messianic age - similar to what many E.A.'s believe longtermist interventions (and neartermist interventions, to some extent)  can bring about - is The Rebbe,  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory.  A great book on this (which I'm reading right now) is "Wisdom to Heal the Earth - Meditations and Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe" by Tzvi Freeman. The focus on 'Tikkun Olam' also aligns with a lot of the progressive Jewish messaging I've seen in recent years anyways.