How to Grow a Mensch
How do we grow a mensch? Inspire a generation of mensches? The Torah responds unequivocally: through education. We pass Jewish teachings from generation to generation to perpetuate a legacy of derech eretz, the value system that is imbued with Torah and secular education along with personal growth, self-discovery and insight into human relationships; values that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents modeled for generations. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch described Jewish education in terms of derech eretz, translated as “the way of the land,” essentially as a holistic education in which being Jewish, studying Torah and learning secular studies becomes an interwoven network of connections. The question is what kind of education leads to this value system defined by derech eretz?
Education begins within the home, and then extends beyond to our Jewish institutions including our schools, synagogues and community centers. It is no secret that often our greatest teachers are our grandparents, who join us in creating our most precious moments and joyful memories. Our grandparents also give us the opportunity to reflect upon the previous generations of Jews with awe and appreciation, opening our eyes to the reality that their personal experiences have ushered Jewish traditions into our present lives, homes and hearts.
Our grandparents link us to our heritage in the most experiential of ways and by feeding us their warm kneidle soup, passing down generations of recipes so they may be eternally preserved. They stand proudly, often weeping, as they listen to our children reading the Torah for the first time in the synagogue. Grandparents effortlessly instill pride in our Jewish identity, as they light the Shabbat candles or say Kiddush, basking in the gifts of Jewish continuity. Grandparents open our consciousness to the realization that Jewish traditions have, and will continue to flourish meaningfully if we actively provide opportunities for our children to connect with their past, thereby inspiring their future.
Jewish education is at the heart of Jewish continuity and “mensch making.” There was a pivotal point in Jewish history when Jewish day school educators in the 1800’s determined that it was vitally important that our children complement their Torah education with a rich array of secular studies. In fact, secular education was considered essential to fully appreciate the Jewish experience. Our grandparents come from this generation of well educated Jews who recognized the critical value of developing a generation of literate Jewish students who could weave scholarly Torah study together with secular education. Beyond that, a secular education provided skills for Jews to contribute to mainstream society while maintaining a commitment to Jewish life while building thriving communities.
The creation of a modern day Jewish community in which Torah and secular education is artfully interwoven is, in fact, a manifestation of our deepest respect and appreciation for our grandparents and the gifts they have bestowed upon us. Irvine Hebrew Day School is an example of an integrated Jewish education in which children connect with and relate to the Torah in their everyday lives. Making these connections to our personal experiences is actually quite simple when we open up our awareness to the reality that all of these teachings are a part of us, waiting to be discovered. An authentic “derech eretz” Jewish education explicitly focuses on teaching children how to be mensches, but also encompasses all aspects of Jewish education including teaching positive discipline, developing prosocial behavior, physical education, Torah study, Hebrew language learning, vocational skills, developing cultural proficiency and all the complementary studies of Torah learning including science, math, history, art, music, literature and technology. As we plant Jewish roots, cultivate our heritage and grow future leaders we must never forget the essential principle posited by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, “Include the soul in the educational process…this is how a mensch is built.” _
Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published in Jlife 2015