Mensch-ology: The Study of Being A Good Person
By Amy Kopkin Atkins
Judaism Your Way’s Open Tent Be Mitzvah program focuses on students Being and Becoming Jewish adults. That seems weird?! They won’t be able to drive a car for two or three years; they won’t be able to vote for another five; and probably until recently, they weren’t even allowed to stay at home by themselves for very long.
Why then does Judaism say you are ready to be a Jewish adult when you haven’t even graduated middle school?
The answer lies in what it means to be a Jewish adult. When you have your Be Mitzvah ceremony, you receive your talit, a Jewish prayer shawl a.k.a. a piece of often ornate fabric that has fringes on either end. These fringes represent mitzvot – actions you take toward yourself, your relationships and the rest of the world to maintain and repair relationships. By choosing to wear a talit, you are choosing to take responsibility for these mitzvot.
As one of my students put it at his recent Be Mitzvah ceremony “A tallit is a way to show that you are older and should be treated with more responsibility. Part of how I am taking on responsibility is by helping others and learning how to stand up to injustice”. (Nate Meyer, October 2021)
This all sounds great, but how do you go from someone whose parents have made decisions for you most of your life to figuring out how to be responsible for yourself and your actions?
Our year 1 students do a unit on Menschology – the study of how to be a mensch (a good person). We began our unit this year answering this question – If someone rented you a billboard, what would you write on it?
You only live once, spend it well – JW
This is our only world, let’s protect it – EG
Where are you when the planet needs you? RP
The world is amazing and so are you. – AH
Clearly, they were well on their way!
Next, we looked at various middot (Jewish values), character strengths born out of Mussar (a Jewish practice that helps people lead good ethical lives), and the sephirot (10 attributes out of Kabbalah). The students chose ones that they want to practice to become more mensch-y in the world. Here are a few of their aspirational creations.
Next, we watched a documentary called 30,000 days written and directed by Tiffany Shlain, a Jewish filmmaker. She challenges people, What do we want to do with our approximately 30,000 days on earth? What is the world asking of us? My students answers:
I want to inspire other people.
I want to inspire people and help people learn and make people happy.
I should grow up and be proud of who I am…I think [the world] is asking me to be strong and brave and tough through hard or even not hard times
I think the world is asking me to be proud of myself and who I am.
I think the world is asking me to make people happy, make the world a better place and put more smiles in the world.
So what does it mean to be a Jewish adult? In the words of my students:
“You are beyond the point where you realize that you are not the center of the universe and that other people have needs”
If that is what our budding Jewish adults are thinking, I think we are in good hands!
Amy Kopkin Atkins
Open Tent Enrollment & Curriculum Manager & Educator