By Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz
“Be a mensch, a kind, compassionate person.” Generations of parents and grandparents have told their children that being a mensch was the essence of Judaism. Imagine if we could update that parental mantra (be a mensch) to Mensch-ify My Kid, and transforming it into the central goal of a Jewish parenting and youth education program. Would parents show up to learn alongside their children? Could the Jewish content be deep enough to supplant the traditional drop off religious school?
When we realized it was time to sunset our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program which, though once nationally recognized for its innovation had now become tired, we turned to the intended clients for their input on what would come next. We asked groups of parents of young Jewish and interfaith families about their hopes for who their children would become. Not surprisingly, their responses paralleled our grandparents’ mantra: “I want my kids each to become a mensch.” Being a mensch meant to them “being kind, compassionate people.”
When asked where they wanted their children to play out these values, what one parent said was particularly expansive: “Everywhere. I want my kids to be a mensch on the playground. I want them to be a mensch at the dinner table. I want them to be mensches with their friends and even with those they don’t know.” Upon discovering that they thirsted for thoughtful guidance on this part of the parenting journey, Congregation Or Ami’s Mensch-ify program was born.
Mensch–ify: A Renaissance of Young Family Involvement
We created Mensch-ify, a nursery through sixth grade alternative Jewish learning and experiencing program, because we realized that a new generation of parents wanted their children to embrace abiding Jewish values without necessarily going the usual drop off religious school route. They were willing to make a commitment of their own time, energy and money, and to participate in a synagogue-based program, if in return they could feel once again that all-embracing, uplifting family- and community-bonding experience they had with their kids back in “Parent and Me” or My Gym classes. Thanks to a generous PK-12 Education innovation grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, we quickly were able to vision, design, and implement Mensch-ify to the delight of parents and students.
Now five months into the inaugural year of Mensch-ify, we are experiencing a renaissance of young family involvement – both previously affiliated and the under-engaged – as families of all structures discover that the lessons learned in synagogue on Sunday are transforming their children’s and their family’s behaviors on Monday.
Creating a New Language for Menschy Living
Mensch-ify is creating a new language for positive compassionate living, based on Jewish texts, Jewish holy days celebration, well articulated behavioral guidance, and powerful Jewish family experiences. Said one mom, “Our daughter is now using the word mensch to describe an ideal kind of behavior to which she aspires. Yesterday, she came home from school saying, ‘Mom, today I was a mensch.’” We discovered that a vocabulary that previously was not defined Jewishly has become an efficacious new part of the effective Jewish parenting toolbox.
Another parent reflected on the amazing scene she witnessed on morning as she peeked into the synagogue’s Noshery (kitchen). She saw their usually rambunctious children sitting respectfully around tables their classes had learned to immaculately set, saying “please” and “thank you,” as they practiced their manners. Texted another surprised parent a few days later, “My son asked to help set the table, and then insisted on teaching us how to put a napkin in our laps, told us how to kindly ask someone to pass the water, and at the end offered to help clean up the table. Most important to me, he understood that this kindness is at the root of Mishpacha, our commitment to our family. He knew such behavior was a Jewish thing. That Mensch-ify My Home session brought sanity to our house. Thanks!”
As parents spend time studying the intersection of Jewish texts and Jewish spiritual parenting with the rabbis, their children are exploring the same Jewish texts and gleaning lessons for menschy living. Sarah and Abraham from the Bible come to life, teaching them how to welcome guests into their home and share our toys (or to put favorite toys away when we are not ready to share them). Rabbi Hillel explains how taking a bath is an example of shmirat haguf (caring for one’s body), while other rabbinic sages model the importance of briyut (healthy self-care).
Meaningful, High Quality, Usable, Jewish
We have learned that everything we do has to be both relevant and Jewishly based. Projects must be meaningful, high quality, and usable. During a Mensch-ify Me self-care project, building upon the study of the siddur texts Elohai Neshama and Asher Yatzar, participants went “shopping” for ways they could take care of themselves. Each family designed its own family self-care magnetic board – what each of us individually want to do that week to take care of ourselves – and, hanging the board on the refrigerator, each family member had a daily reminder to Mensch-ify myself. We received unsolicited pictures all week: of adults sitting on porches reading, kids playing guitar or cuddling with pets, and a healthy packed lunch from one junk-food loving dad. One enticing picture showed a hot bath drawn surrounded by lit candles.
4 Important Lessons Gleaned
It’s too early to judge the success of this new educational adventure. Still, we are learning important lessons:
- Including both parents and educators on our planning team, some being long time experts in young and middle education, has led to an effective program, powerful vision, and positive early results.
- By providing real parenting lessons on a twice monthly basis, parents are uniquely seeing this religious education as a central value-added component of their week. Now viewing Mensch-ify as an essential tool in their parenting toolbox, they are asking us to address specific parenting challenges in future sessions such as Mensch-ify My Bedroom (cleaning up your room) and Mensch-ify December (a new spin on the December dilemma challenge for both intermarried and Jew-only families).
- Parents still want to learn, and many want to do so alongside and in parallel with their children. Most tellingly, enrollment has exceeded our best projections, and attendance is consistent, even among students who chose to attend both Mensch-ify and Kesher (our midweek drop off camp-style religious learning program).
- Importing this Mensch-ify theme into the greater temple culture has provided us with a rich language, based in Jewish texts, with which to address non-menschy behavior at board meetings, deepen the relationship building component of our 4th-6th grade retreat, and expand the interest in our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting workshops.
Mensch-ify continues to attract under-engaged families, interfaith families, single parent and blended families, and what we sometime think of as the “newish Jewish” (adults who are either recent Jews-by-choice or former religious school drop outs). It has become a gateway to building a self-sustaining Jewish community of meaning. We are being fastidious about collecting our session and lesson plans to ensure that the program will one day be replicable in other synagogues and Jewish institutions. All the while, we are motivated by a clear vision: that parents want to learn how to raise mensches, and to become better Jewish parents.
We say: Be a mensch. Want to? We will help Mensch-ify your family!
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California.
Rabbi Julia Weisz is Congregation Or Ami’s Director of Education.