Let’s Talk About Being a Mensch

Between Us

Here are three ways to Make It Yours this week:

  • Whip up some scrumptious Chanukah dishes…with a twist. Check out the Jewish Food Experience’s Top 10 Chanukah recipes from DC Foodies.
  • Help The Jewish Federation reach out to community members and give them the opportunity to support those in need this year. Sign up today for the Winter Dial-a-ThonsDecember 7 – 9 in MD, DC and VA.
  • Download our brand new Chanukah booklet to explore fun facts about the holiday, delicious recipes, family activity ideas and more.

I recently read a note written by a local mom: “As my preschool son and I approached a set of doors going into a public building, we noticed a physically-challenged young girl struggling to enter. My son ran to the door and I was worried he was going to push ahead and knock her over. Instead, he held the door open so she could more easily enter. I was both shocked and proud of my son’s kind behavior and commented on how nice he was to do that. He told me, “Of course I did it Mommy! At school I’m learning to be a mensch.” 

The school he goes to is a Jewish preschool and indeed, the young boy is on his way to becoming a mensch. The teachers who make this important learning possible – our early childhood educators (700 of them!) – gathered yesterday at B’nai Israel Congregation for a day-long Jewish Early Childhood Education Conference. Sponsored by The Federation and its Department of Jewish Life and Learning, the program featured Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism and focused on the importance of building community, not only around institutions, but around relationships. It is a positive message, one that needs to be heard throughout our community and throughout the Jewish world.

Children will naturally play with anyone, until they’re told not to. Hatred is a learned trait, and unfortunately, there’s far too much of that type of learning going on. Just this week, we heard of an ugly arson attack on a Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, one of just a few bi-lingual Arab/Jewish schools in Israel – founded and focused on co-existence. The anti-Arab graffiti written by the criminal(s) left no doubt as to the message, and the attack was condemned by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Minister of Education Shai Piron, the Jewish Federations of North America and many others. Clearly, there is an enormous amount of inexcusable and dangerous anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate, as evidenced by the atrocious attacks in France and in Israel just this week, but stooping to that level will surely not elevate us. The day after the arson, every single child came to the school, refusing to be bullied by hate; choosing instead to invest in their relationships.

This week’s parashaVayishlach, is also about relationships: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 

This famous wrestling match between Jacob and the mysterious stranger is among the more curious portions of the Torah. As he prepared to meet his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years, Jacob assumed he was by himself after he sends his family to the other side of the river. Instead he finds himself locked in an all-night battle with an unknown entity: An angel? A man? His own conscience? After the violent encounter, he emerges limping from a hip wound.

Of all the angles to this story, perhaps the most fascinating is the notion that just when he thought he was alone, Jacob is confronted with the mystery combatant. He may have felt guilty that he was not prepared to acknowledge responsibility for his behavior toward his brother 20 years earlier. Perhaps the angel is symbolic of all those problems we would rather ignore and whether we choose to deal with them or not, they have a way of finding us. Jacob is an imperfect role model, a real person with real flaws.

Being a mensch means to struggle with ourselves and do the right thing; seeking to emerge victorious while risking becoming slightly wounded.

We can all relate to that.

Shabbat Shalom,

Steven A. Rakitt, Chief Executive Officer  
[email protected]

Click here to view photos from The Federation’s Early Childhood Education Conference.