How Michael and Caren Merlin share their love of philanthropic giving with their children
Growing up in Atlanta, in the Briarcliff/Lavista and Dunwoody neighborhoods, Michael Merlin was raised with philanthropy, as he puts it, “in my family DNA.” Passed down from his grandparents to his parents and then to him – l’dor v’dor – he was surrounded by examples of commitment to helping the Jewish community here thrive.
What this looked like: His dad served as president of Shearith Israel, his mom was active with the Jewish day school he attended, Hebrew Academy, and his grandmother was a regular volunteer with the Mizrachi Women at the JCC.
“Giving back is something that is innate to the Jewish ethic and Jewish identity,” Michael said. “It’s the reason Caren and I feel so passionately about Jewish education and Jewish day school—because they teach you about Tikkun Olam from a very early age.”
No surprise then that Michael and his wife Caren, a board member and Vice President of the Epstein School, have instilled their own children with an ethos of helping others, starting when they were just tots. And when the Merlin family gathers around the kitchen table, they frequently discuss how to give strategically through their Donor-Advised Fund (DAF) with Atlanta Jewish Foundation (AJF).
Their sons, 15-year-old Jonathan and 12-year-old Ryan, are especially precocious when it comes to philanthropy. Michael can remember one winter when six-year-old Jonathan asked what Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) did. The youngster had been watching his parents spending lots of time there as volunteers, and it had piqued the kindergartner’s curiosity.
“They help people,” Michael recalls explaining. “They feed hungry people and clothe homeless people.”
Because it was so cold outside, Jonathan left and returned with a $5 bill and instructed Michael and Caren to give that money to JF&CS. Michael proudly recalls his small son explaining: “Because it’s cold out, I want to keep people warm.”
Fast forward almost a decade, and both boys still feel strongly about addressing homelessness in Atlanta – frequently hosting lunch drives for the Zaban Paradies Center. Jonathan, a freshman at Pace Academy, and Ryan, a 6th grader at the Epstein School, have also broadened their philanthropic involvement as they’ve gotten older.
Jonathan is leading a fundraising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and has raised to date over $157,000. He and Caren also serve as members of the Sandy Springs Chapter of the Young Men’s Service League. Additionally, Jonathan has been nominated for citizenship award at Pace, where he also serves as an ambassador to prospective students.
Ryan is especially passionate about environmental stewardship, and will no doubt be addressing his concerns in this area with his upcoming bar mitzvah project.
Together, the Merlin family gives to around 15-16 charities a year through their DAF, each voicing and validating the causes that are nearest and dearest to their hearts, framed within their DAF’s mission and purpose statement.
These causes include The Epstein School, University of Haifa (Judaics Studies Teacher Exchange Program), Congregation B’nai Torah, the ML4 Foundation, JF&CS, Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, Emory Winship Cancer Center, and many, many more.
“It is clear to me that having a Jewish education helped us instill a culture of giving back in our boys,” Michael said. With that foundation the Merlin Family had many fun and rewarding conversations in setting their philanthropic priorities together. “When I asked my kids about their three highest priorities, they said homelessness, Israel, education,” Michael said. “I can feel good to tell them we’re supporting those things already, through our DAF with the Foundation.”