Sam Benabou, a junior at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill, is one of the teens behind the Hamsa Fund. (Photo/Courtesy Benabou)
Sam Benabou, a junior at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill, is one of the teens behind the Hamsa Fund. (Photo/Courtesy Benabou)

Covid-19 can’t stop these East Bay Jewish teen fundraisers

When 15 or so teens gathered last fall at a synagogue in Walnut Creek to discuss philanthropy, they didn’t know that social distancing was going to throw a wrench into their fundraising plans.

“It’s been really hard,” said Sam Benabou, a junior at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill. “There’s a lot of job insecurity right now. It’s tough to ask people to donate.”

But the young people involved in the Hamsa Fund, an ongoing program of Contra Costa Midrasha, didn’t give up on their fundraising goals because of Covid-19. Instead, they pivoted from their original plans, added Covid-19 relief efforts to their agenda and raised around $8,500 for four nonprofits.

Max Hess
Max Hess

“We’ve certainly achieved quite a bit with what we had,” said Max Hess, a senior at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek.

The Hamsa Fund is an all-teen Jewish philanthropy board that teaches East Bay teens how to fundraise, research nonprofits and make decisions about giving. It was set up five years ago, said Devra Aarons, executive director of Contra Costa Midrasha, and was inspired by a phrase from Deuteronomy: “You shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”

The teen fundraisers usually pull in around $20,000 each year, but this year it was harder because of the inability to meet potential donors face to face. They generally raise money via family and friends.

“That direct contact with people is what raises a lot of our funds,” Benabou said.

But the $8,500 raised in 2020 is still a nice chunk to donate. Most of it is still going to organizations that support the teens’ original goal of boosting access to education — $2,000 each to nonprofits SOAR for Youth, College Track and Jumpstart.

“I think it’s amazing they were able to do what they did, because their fundraising campaign had just started,” Aarons said.

The rest — some $2,500 plus — is going to Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay to support the agency’s new Jewish Community Safety Net program for people impacted by the pandemic.

“We decided to fund nonprofits that would provide immediate help and relief,” Benabou said.

Hess, who has been in the program for four years, said he appreciates the way that the fund gives teens a deeper understanding of societal problems and offers them a way to be part of the solution.

“The earlier we can get involved, the better, because it really empowers people,” he said.

Hess said he plans to continue working with nonprofits and fundraising once he’s off to college in the fall at Purdue University in Indiana.

“Anyone can do it,” he said. “It’s really just about putting in the time and building networks.”

Though the teens handed out the allocations in a Zoom event on May 27, money continues to trickle in through the fundraising website or the mail. All of it will go to JFCS East Bay, Benabou said.

Making personal pleas in order to raise money for worthy causes, Benabou added, has shown him it’s not only adults who can make a difference, and he credits the Hamsa Fund with showcasing that.

“It definitely opened me up to a new world of philanthropy that I didn’t even know about,” he said.

“They take it really seriously,” said Aarons, the Midrasha director. “And it shows.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.