‘Men are Born, Mentschen are Made’

boys-to-mentschJWI Boy to Mentsch program shows

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

If you ask a teenage boy what it means to be a man, you’re likely to get responses such as, “be strong,” “be tough” and “be macho.”

“So often a boy feels if he is sensitive then he is not a man,” Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Baltimore’s Congregation Tiferes Yisroel explains in a documentary recently produced by Jewish Women International (JWI). He notes what many Orthodox boys fail to internalize is the Jewish principle of “derech eretz kadma l’Torah,” which means first and foremost be a mentsch.

The documentary is the culmination of a several years-long initiative and partnership between JWI, CHANA Baltimore and Baltimore’s ultra-Orthodox community. The team, through Boy to Mentsch, a comprehensive curriculum and public awareness campaign, sought to teach Baltimore’s boys about healthy masculinity. Boy to Mentsch was funded by a grant from the U.S. Office of Violence against Women, a division of the Department of Justice.

“The only way to create change is if we get the rabbis, leaders, fathers, coaches and kids to start talking about what it means to be a mentsch,” said JWI’s Vice President of Programming and New Initiatives Deborah Rosenbloom.

The program centered on four principles: empathy, conflict resolution, effective communication and teamwork, explained Shmuel Fischler, CHANA director of outreach and advocacy. These principles were then adapted into a four- hour-long curriculum geared toward boys in middle and high school. Lessons could be delivered in full or broken up.

Talmudical Academy, mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) Rabbi Avi Landa offered the class in four parts for 7th and 8th graders. It was modified for several camps, and later even broken into discussion starters and designed onto plastic card key rings, which coaches could use before or after a sports game. Classes were further delivered as part of Saturday night father-son learning and at select community-wide events. Synagogues ranging from Congregation Shomrei Emunah to Congregation Ohel Moshe offered members snapshot lessons.

Landa often adopted the language of the program to be even more culturally competent.

“The basic idea was to present a topic such as mitzvot bein adam le-chavero (interpersonal commandments) and use it as the backdrop for a discussion about good, healthy interactions between peers, discussions about self-confidence, standing up for victims of bullying, creating an atmosphere that doesn’t tolerate bullying,” Landa said.

Concurrently, the public awareness campaign was run in close collaboration with an Orthodox marketing consultant. Rosenbloom said advertisements were placed in Seven Mile Market (the kosher grocery store), at local kosher eateries, on buses and the Jewish Community Center – as opposed to on social media, to reach the community where it is.

The public awareness campaign was built to hit more than 5 million eyeballs over a period of 18 months; Baltimore is home to close to 94,000 Jews, according to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, of which roughly 20% identifies as Orthodox.

Outside In

How did a small group of liberal women in Washington pull off a healthy relationships program in black-hat Jewish Baltimore?

CHANA Executive Director Nancy Aiken said the Baltimore community was ripe. She had received requests for boy-focused programming before, but lack of funding had precluded the possibility of such types of outreach. She noted that secular and non-Jewish healthy masculinity programs are offered in Baltimore, but the Orthodox community won’t take part because of language and other barriers.

JWI worked with CHANA to hire an external consultant, Rabbi Ovadiah Bander, to assess the needs and wants of the frum community before getting started.

“There were consistent reports of challenges in the home that manifested themselves in problems with shalom bayit [peace in the home],” said Bander. “Domestic violence exists everywhere. The community wanted us to combat unhealthy masculinity, so we created … how to raise boys to be mentschen.”

Aiken said securing buy-in from the local rabbeim and other leadership right away was essential to the program’s success. Fischler helped form a rabbinic advisory committee by which he ran several of the materials before they were presented publically. That feedback proved essential for ensuring cultural sensitivity.

Though Rosenbloom worked closely with Fischler and Bander, including holding even daily calls and penning drafts of letters and other materials, JWI rarely appeared on any of the marketing content and did not present workshops. Meetings were conducted behind closed doors at CHANA.

For Rosenbloom, whose team invested in and wrote the grant taking a backseat was not always easy.

“It was a very frustrating experience,” Rosenbloom admitted. “We often felt so disempowered.”

Sometimes, she would vent to her team, bemoaning her inability to pick up the phone and call a certain rabbi or not having access to this or that community leader. On the other hand, she said because she was not front and center, she took more of an objective viewpoint and offered more constructive feedback, which likely led in part to the program’s success.

“Sometimes you have to take a backseat if you really want to make a difference and be respectful of the community you are working with,” Rosenbloom said.

Bander admitted it is “only because of silliness” that certain Orthodox organizations might feel stigmatized by being associated with an organization such as JWI or even discussing domestic violence. But he was impressed that JWI was sensitive enough to fall into the background so the collective goal could be accomplished.

Inside Out

The Baltimore Orthodox community was not transformed, Fischler acknowledged. However, he said feedback from teachers and community members was positive and those who took part in the Boy to Mentsch program demonstrated improved behavior. Further, the community’s language changed – “that’s the first step.”

“People use the phrase boy to mentsch as though it was something that existed before this program and that is pretty cool,” said Aiken.

They also connect healthy masculinity to the Jewish faith.

“These are very universal concepts that everyone from the most secular to the most religious should agree on,” said Landa. “The rest is just semantics.

What’s next?

Fischler said Baltimore is exploring additional funding models to allow Boy to Mentsch to continue in some capacity. Rosenbloom hopes to take the model to other Orthodox communities.

“The Orthodox is often not portrayed as engaged in social justice or combatting these unhealthy types of masculinity or power acts,” said Bander. “This program was a great way to fight back and our community rallied around it. We should be very proud.”