“Space to Lead.” Behind a Historic Gift for Jewish Girls’ Leadership

Harriette Perlman, Noga Hurwitz and Ted Perlman

Harriette Perlman, Noga Hurwitz and Ted Perlman

A $25 million gift recently pledged by Chicago industrialist Ted Perlman and his wife Harriette to the international Jewish teen organization BBYO is by far the single largest donation that the venerable youth group has ever received. A major gift by any standard, the pledge is funding new girls’ leadership programs at BBYO and enabling the organization to build its endowment.

In a recent interview with Inside Philanthropy, Perlman, 82, recalled loving his time as a teenage member of BBYO in Chicago, where he is still based. When he joined, BBYO was already a family commitment. In 1944, when B’nai B’rith Youth was 20 years old and Perlman was not yet old enough to join, his mother, Anita M. Perlman, persuaded the national Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith—whose youth affiliates were then only for boys—to allow girls to join. B’nai B’rith Girls, now known as BBG, was established to parallel AZA, the boys’ group, whose initials are meant to imitate the names of Greek fraternities.

In 2002, BBYO broke away from B’nai B’rith International and became an independent nonprofit. On its 2017 tax filing, BBYO reported about $31.5 million in revenue.

BBYO’s aim is to keep adolescents engaged in Jewish life after they celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs, when there is a huge dive in involvement in organized Jewish life, said CEO Matthew Grossman in an interview. “We’re fighting a trend of disengagement and literally have to reintroduce Judaism to 13- and 14-year-olds in creative and compelling ways if we’re going to capture their imagination.”

Those “creative and compelling ways” focus on fun, philanthropy and leadership for the roughly 33,000 Jewish teenagers in the U.S. and around the world who are BBYO members in about 600 chapters. More than half of the chapters are BBG chapters.

Noga Hurwitz, 19, is BBG’s International N’siah (Hebrew for president). As the head of the young women’s half of BBYO, she has taken a gap year, as has her male counterpart at AZA, and is spending it on the road, living out of a suitcase and working with local and regional groups to teach and demonstrate young women’s leadership through example.

Born in Israel, Hurwitz was raised in northern California’s Silicon Valley in a secular Jewish family. A friend brought her to a BBG meeting when Hurwitz was in 8th grade, she told IP in an interview. “I loved the sisterhood I saw at that first meeting. It was girls of varying ages and backgrounds, and they all made a concerted effort to make us feel included. That’s what I still love most about BBG.” Through regular participation in the youth movement, Hurwitz said, “I also discovered a whole Jewish identity and had the opportunity to make friends and learn leadership skills.”

In high school she was captain of the girls’ soccer and lacrosse teams and a member of student government. “All of that came from what I learned in BBG and having the space to explore my Jewish identity,” she said.

The roughly 70 members of her BBG chapter in Palo Alto met every Saturday night for social gatherings and on alternate Tuesdays after school for business meetings. “As a 13-year-old, it’s cool to be part of that,” Hurwitz said.

“I served on the chapter board, organized community service events and fundraisers. In my chapter, the causes we supported involved working with a local Jewish nonprofit supporting services for the homeless, working with a women’s shelter and with environmental groups,” Hurwitz said. The choices “all come from the teens.”

“Kids say all the time that ‘BBYO is the only place in my life where adults aren’t telling me what to do,’” said Grossman.

“They feel ownership and responsibility for its growth and success and are out there recruiting their peers and friends, using their abilities as social networkers to bring kids in.” The organization had about 8,000 North American members when he started as BBYO’s CEO. Fifteen years later, it has roughly tripled that, with another 10,000 participants in 44 countries around the world from Mexico to Uzbekistan. “Most of that growth is through peer recruiting. When a high school junior or senior reaches out to an eighth grader or freshman, puts their arm around them and says, ‘we know how scary it is to start high school,’ those younger kids are going to sign up.”

Hurwitz says she is excited about what the Perlman gift will mean for young women’s leadership opportunities in BBYO, as it provides scholarships for more girls to attend regional and national training events and for alumni networking after they go to college and beyond. “A lot of the leaders I saw in my community, in the tech industry, were men. It’s so important to support young women so we have space to lead,” she said.

BBYO runs about 110 regional conventions a year, with roughly 8,000 teen participants, said Grossman, as well as summer camps and programs in Israel. The organization estimates that it has about 200,000 living alumni, he said.

In addition to chapters’ philanthropic choices, teen leaders also develop BBYO programs, whether they are local, regional or international gatherings. The 2019 International Convention, which met February 13th to 18th in Denver, brought together 5,500 Jewish teenagers from across the U.S. and most of the 44 countries worldwide where BBYO has participants.

Conference programming was driven by the teens themselves; the list of acknowledgements for the members who coordinated and planned programs, and participated in the BBYO Band and ‘press corps’ runs seven pages of the convention program in small type.

The Presidents’ Week gathering included prominent speakers and entertainers, all selected and invited by the teens, said Grossman. Presenters included members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset, entrepreneurs like Blake Mycoskie, CEO and “chief shoe giver” of TOMS footwear, Olympians and professional athletes including skating superstar Adam Rippon, activists including the former principal of Columbine High School and a co-founder of March for Our Lives, and Chella Man, a deaf, Jewish-Chinese transgender male artist and trans activist. Jared Polis, the first openly gay man and first Jew elected Colorado’s governor, also spoke. Big-name entertainers at the convention included comedian Chelsea Handler and rapper T-Pain. T-Pain later posted on Instagram that he was irritated that BBYO leaders told him to keep his performance free of cursing “to respect the kids,” and that some of those present threw glow sticks on stage and a beach ball at his head.

The Perlman family commitment to strengthening girls’ leadership goes back many decades. Perlman’s mother, Anita, marched for women’s rights in the 1940s and later became international president of B’nai B’rith Girls.

“Looking at what Ted’s doing in honor of his mother to bring out the best in young women is astounding,” said Grossman. “He’s truly a mama’s boy. The way in which he reveres his mother and has made it his philanthropic priority to make sure her legacy is known is really beautiful.”

The Perlmans’ $25 million gift will be paid out over eight years and will primarily fund BBYO’s endowment, which now holds about $2 million, according to Grossman. Once fully funded, he expects the endowment’s investments to generate about $1 million a year, which will be go right into the operating budget.

To recognize Anita M. Perlman’s legacy, the BBG presidency has now been re-named in her honor.

Asked what led to the $25 million gift, in addition to Perlman’s personal history as a BBYO member, Grossman said that he met the philanthropist about a decade ago, and they “have been building a relationship” ever since.

Ted and Harriette Perlman have three children and nine grandchildren. In addition to BBYO, they fund the Weizmann Institute of Science and Yemin Orde, an educational village for at-risk youth, both of which are in Israel, and in Chicago, the Jewish federation and Sinai Health System.

“In the last couple of years, Ted has been thinking about his family’s legacy, and we started to have those conversations,” Grossman told IP when asked how the $25 million gift developed.

Perlman is co-founder and owner of the HAVI group, a company that provides marketing, logistics and packaging production to the food industry worldwide. Perhaps its most famous product is the red cardboard cups McDonald’s uses to hold French fries, which HAVI produces and distributes. The burger chain, Perlman said, is by far its biggest client.