The Honorable Menschen of President’s Day

February may be a short month, but what it lacks in length it makes up for by honoring a diverse set of people. From Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) to Valentine’s Day, President’s Day to Black History Month, there are a plethora of opportunities to commemorate the honorable “menschen” who deserve honorable mentions.

Even in this time of partisan politics and social change, there is one goal upon which clergy, parents, educators and community leaders agree: we must nurture future generations of moral and “menschy” global citizens. A mensch is someone who is admired, respected and trusted because of their sense of ethics, fairness and nobility. Universally, a mensch does not put self-interest above doing what is just and right.

A mensch in a Jewish framework leads a life driven by values from Jewish tradition. In their family, community and the world at large, a mensch gives righteously (tzedakah), pledges devotion (ahava), shows gratitude (hakarat hatov), takes responsibility (achrayut), deals in loving kindness (hessed), behaves ethically (musar), embodies truth (emet), shares generously (nediv lev), reflects dignity (kavod), supports community (kehillah), repairs the world (tikkun olam), displays modesty (anavah) and demonstrates courage (ometz lev).

In February, President’s Day gives us an opportunity to honor some of the important menschen in American history. This Monday, February 19, we will reflect on the legacies of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. In addition to recalling the stories praising “Honest Abe” Lincoln and George Washington, who “could not a tell a lie,” we cannot forget their contributions to the American Jewish community.

In August 1790, Washington responded to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island to alleviate their concerns about religious freedom. Quoting the biblical vision in which, “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid,” Washington assured them that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protections should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support”.

Similarly, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln demonstrated his dedication to religious freedom. On December 17, 1862, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, which declared that, “the Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade, [were to be] expelled from the department […] and anyone returning after such notification [would be] arrested in confinement.”

In response, a delegation headed by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise petitioned President Lincoln, who replied that he did not “like to see a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” As Wise reflected, Lincoln demonstrated that, “he knew of no distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that he feels none against any nationality and especially against Israelites.”

This President’s Day, as we commemorate the mitzvot of these menschen, consider making time to visit Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial. Pause there and ask yourself, in this free and democratic environment, what should my behavior and legacy be for my family and for my community?