Jewish youth organization nabs $25 million gift to help empower young women

Harriette and Theodore Perlman with Noga Hurwitz, one of two teen presidents of BBYO. Photo courtesy of BBYO

(RNS) — A global Jewish youth organization has received one of the largest single gifts in recent Jewish organizational history — $25 million to help support women in their young adult lives.

The gift from Chicago businessman and philanthropist Theodore Perlman, and his wife, Harriette, to BBYO will allow the 95-year-old organization to start a women’s leadership initiative connecting Jewish women through their college and early professional careers with mentorship and training.

The initiative is named in honor of his mother, Anita M. Perlman, who founded B’nai B’rith Girls, or BBG, in 1944.

“My mother had the foresight to know, even decades ago, the capabilities of young women and their desire to move into positions of leadership,” said Perlman, 82.

Perlman is the founder of the HAVI Group, a 40-year-old logistics firm that supplies chains such as McDonald’s, KFC and Subway with packaging and toys, including those found in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

For Jews worried about the age-old problem of Jewish assimilation and the growing disaffiliation from Jewish synagogue and institutional life among younger millennial Jews, the gift offers a partial solution.

BBYO, which grew out of the B’nai Brith International, a Jewish service organization, has been independent since 2002. It consists of youth-led groups who gather for various activities in homes, Jewish Community Centers, synagogues or coffee shops.  It has 33,000 members globally, the majority in the U.S.

BBYO allows Jewish teens of all stripes — including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated — to join. The organization encourages members — ages 13 to 18 — to develop their own programming and leadership. There are 600 groups in the U.S., with an average size of 40 young people.

Noga Hurwitz, one of two teen presidents of BBYO, said she came from a secular Jewish home but joined BBYO in the eighth grade and has been active ever since.

“I wasn’t expecting to find a Jewish identity when I joined BBYO, but I think I absolutely have cultivated a sense of Judaism,” said Hurwitz, 19, who begins college in the fall in a joint program offered through Columbia University and Jewish Theological Seminary. “Being able to discover that in a pluralistic environment has been impactful to me as a Jew.”

Matthew Grossman, the BBYO CEO, said the Perlman gift will allow graduating high school women to connect with the organization’s alumni in their communities and create a fellowship program. It will also fund an endowment.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

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