Sam Deutsch’s good works come with ‘on the job’ philanthropy lessons


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

For those who are lucky enough to go away to summer camp, the experience can be transformational. It becomes a part of your identity, of who you are. When this happens, you become a lifer. Camp is woven into your DNA. Like many in St. Louis, Sam Deutsch is a Camp Sabra lifer. Deutsch spent his first summer at Sabra at age 8 and has never missed a summer in the Ozarks, including during COVID.

“I love camp. It’s given me some of the greatest friends in the world and some of the greatest experiences, such as Masada,” said Deutsch, who has since become a counselor at Sabra as well.

For him, going to camp is a family affair. His mother, Lisa, was a Sabra camper, counselor and now is the camp’s assistant director of community care. All of Deutsch’s siblings are Sabra alums. His father, Jim, spent many a summer at the Lake of the Ozarks where became a water-skiing aficionado.

“We all love water skiing. At camp, my family is dedicated to the ski dock,” said Deutsch, 17, who is a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School. “That is where you’ll find us.”

At age 13, just as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Amoona, Deutsch decided that in addition to his mitzvah project helping the local charity I-Skate, which provides people with disabilities a chance to learn to ice skate, he wanted to give the Camp Sabra ski dock a much-needed makeover.

“I decided I would donate a portion of the money that I received at my bar mitzvah to revamp the dock and its equipment,” said Deutsch. “We needed new skis, new wakeboards, new ropes. Everything was old and worn out.”

Deutsch took $750 from bar mitzvah gift money and began looking at what he could afford. He soon realized he would need more in order to really make changes at the ski dock. So he reached out to family friend Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center, for help.

“Sam is a truly special kind of young man.  He is thoughtful and really wants to make a difference in his community,” said Wittels.

Wittels connected Deutsch with local Jewish developer and philanthropist Michael Staenberg.

“I knew Michael supported Camp Sabra, so I sent him an email explaining what I was doing, and asked him if he could help me with a matching donation,” said Deutsch. “But he said no.”

Staenberg’s “no” wasn’t without reason, and he requested a meeting with Deutsch.

“We met at the old Starbucks in Clayton and he told me the reason he said no was that he wanted me to learn the work that goes into philanthropy,” said Deutsch.

“I was immediately struck by Sam at our first meeting,” said Staenberg. “He is bright, articulate and a real go-getter.  But, as I got to know him better and learn more about what makes Sam tick, I realized that he is a very special young man.”

Staenberg told Deutsch that he needed to earn $360 of the $750 he needed. If Sam did that, he’d match the $360, plus the original $750.

“But there was a catch. He said I had to work for the money. He didn’t want me to just call family and friends and ask for it. I really needed to do the work outside of my family circle,” said Deutsch. 

He got to work. He got on the phone, he met with some people and sent emails. 

“I made cold calls. There were no easy calls,” remembered Deutsch. “Within a few days, I had the money. I emailed Michael and told him ‘I got there’ and he was excited and said we could do more things like this in the future.”

After Deutsch’s bar mitzvah, he and Staenberg would meet every few months so that Staenberg could continue teaching Deutsch about the work of philanthropy.

“About a year later, he said, ‘let’s do something’ and he meant it. He asked me to find out what Camp Sabra’s needs were for between $5,000 and $7,000,” said Deutsch.

Deutsch connected with Camp Sabra’s assistant director Ben Panet, and they decided that the camp’s old tents needed to be replaced.

“They were old and missing items and had holes in them. When it rains on river trips, and it rains a lot, trips got cut short because of the tents,’ said Deutsch. “After much research, we found the tents we wanted for about $500 each and could sleep more than a dozen campers.  We needed 10, so $5,000 was the goal.”

“Sam reached out to me because he knows I am passionate about the impact camping can have on children,” Staenberg said. “I was surprised at first — it really takes a bit of chutzpah for a teen to call the largest donor within the St. Louis Jewish community — and asked if I would match any funds he raised. I agreed and Sam raised the necessary funds.”

Deutsch and Staenberg met, got organized, and got to work. Staenberg taught Deutsch the art of writing to potential donors, and how to make the process as simple as possible

“With Lynn Wittels’ help, we set up a fundraising page on the J website to make donating easy,” said Deutsch. “Within a week, we hit our mark. I then used Michael’s lessons and followed up by reaching out to thank each donor so we could maintain those relationships.”

“Sabra campers now have new tents,” said Staenberg. “It is this type of behavior that served as the foundation for Sam being awarded Camp Sabra’s Tomahawk Award. Staff select a single camper each session for this very prestigious award.  The selection criteria include a demonstration of a camper’s ability to mentor younger campers and show leadership among their peers. This camper is considered a ‘mensch’ in all areas of activity. Sam was one the youngest camper ever to win this award.”

Deutsch seems to have a knack for identifying a need and coming up with a solution. He continues to utilize the invaluable lessons he learned from Staenberg through his work with Camp Sabra, BBYO, and at Ladue High.

In BBYO, Deutsch was voted the St. Louis Council Gadol (the highest male leader) this school year. According to Panet, the regional director, Deutsch played a “giant role” in supporting all of the BBYO chapters in St. Louis by developing great programming, bringing in more Jewish teens to events, and helping the St. Louis Council fundraise throughout the year.

In addition to keeping up with his classes, Deutsch is very busy after school leading several efforts to help others. Last year, he became the first male director of the Ladue Dance Marathon. The annual event raises money for the Children’s Miracle Network.

As president of the Ladue chapter of Best Buddies International, he works to end social isolation in schools for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The organization does this by hosting all-inclusive events and theme parties and pairing an IDD student with students they wouldn’t meet without the club. 

Deutsch is also on the board for Ladue Night Lights, a new event at the high school that puts on a unified football game for kids with physical and intellectual disabilities and their families. 

“I have found Sam to have an emotional maturity that distinguishes him from most of his peers,” said Staenberg, who continues to talk to Deutsch on a regular basis.  “He has a good soul and is always concerned for the well-being of others.  Sam will be successful in whatever he chooses to do, both after high school and in his life as an adult.”