'Becoming a Mentsh' Teen Workshops Explore Ethics
by Merry Madway Eisenstadt
(c) Washington Jewish Week Feb. 17, 2000
Two students find a wallet full of money in an empty hallway after school. The identification
inside the wallet shows that it belongs to a student they know, though the youth is not a close
friend. What options might the students consider? What are the potential consequences on school
relationships and self-respect of the various options?
A student comes up to you and a friend and offers what he says is a copy of the upcoming exam
that he has managed to get his hands on, never mind how. As a senior, you worry that getting
a bad grade on a tough mid-term exam might affect your acceptance to college. What options might
you consider and how might cheating affect your relationships with other students and teachers
and the overall school environment?
Discussion exercises like these are part of William Berkson’s “Becoming a Mentsh” workshops
being piloted in more than a dozen supplementary religious schools in the greater Washington area.
Berkson of Reston, Va., is executive director of The Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, an
organization he founded in 1995 to develop Jewish values-based curriculum and train teachers.
Berkson, who holds a doctorate in history and the philosophy of science, has developed a series
of four workshops that teens, grades 7-10, attend with their parents, to “restore ethics and
spirituality to the curriculum” in after-school religious programs, he says. At each grade, a
different workshop is given:
• Seventh grade: “What is a Mentsh? How Jewish ethical values can make life more fulfilling”;
• Eighth grade: “Shalom Bayit — Parent-Teen Responsibilities, Communication”;
• Ninth grade: “Passionate Decisions — Sex and Self-control, Love and Marriage,” addresses issues
of inderdating and interfaith marriage;
• Tenth grade: “Making Peace with Your Future — Career, Identity, Fulfillment. What is true success?”
During the past four years, his two-to-three-hour workshops have reached approximately 2,000
families, adds Berkson, who is originally from Champaign, Ill. This year, The Jewish Federation
of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund has awarded Berkson’s program $10,000 toward
publishing the curriculum and developing a video, teacher’s manual and participant workbooks.
“Becoming a Mentsh” workshops are also supported by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater
Washington. Berkson maintains a web site (www.mentsh.com) where families can access materials
related to the workshops and participants can offer Berkson feedback. Already, Berkson has
presented the curriculum at several national Jewish educators’ assemblies.
Gloria Eiseman, education director at B’nai Shalom of Olney’s Kapiloff Religious School, has
praised the “Becoming a Mentsh” series. “I would say that the most wonderful sight was watching
teen-agers and parents talking together,” she says. “They were discussing issues that were ‘real’
to their lives and they had the background to do so intelligently using the [Jewish] sources
provided.” Eiseman notes that each workshop begins and ends with a Jewish prayer.
In the “Shalom Bayit” (peace in the Home) session for eighth-graders, parents and teens learn
to raise sensitive issues in a “soft” way without blaming or attacking the other, explains Berkson.
At the same time, parents are taught about the importance of discipline and the Jewish precept
that “All love that has no reproof with it is not true love” (Genesis Rabbah 54:3).
When speaking of his simulation exercises and the ensuing discussions between teen-agers and
parents, Berkson becomes as animated as a sports coach relating his MVP’s best plays. “This
generation of kids has not heard the word, mentsh,” says Berkson. “My generation typically does
not use this word with their kids.” And yet, Jewish ethical precepts offer a “philosophy for living”
amid the pressures of modern day life, he continues.
Just what is a mentsh according to Berkson? The Yiddish word means a “human being,” in German,
(mensch) a person. To Berkson, a mentsh “encapsulates a person who lives according to Jewish values,
a person who is kind and responsible.” He also likes the definition proposed by a Congregation
B’nai Tzedek parent-participant: “A person who knows the right thing to do and does it.”
In developing his program, Berkson had observed “marginal allegiance to Judaism” among young Jews,
“Jewish children who are breathtakingly rude in religious school,” and Jewish adults on “quarreling
In his “found wallet” exercise with seventh- graders, the students devise numerous responses from
returning the wallet anonymously to the school office, bringing the item to the owner directly,
keeping the wallet, returning the wallet without the money, to returning the wallet with “a cut
taken and divided” between the finders.
While the students debate, Berkson weaves in Jewish precepts, including the idea that returning
identifiable property that has been found is one of the 613 commandments.
In all of Berkson’s lessons, students and parents are asked how behavior affects concepts of
self-worth and trust within a community. “They are seeing the impact of doing the right thing
and the harm done if they don’t do what is right. They learn to see themselves as part of the
social fabric,” he says. “When youngsters delve into these exercises and discussions, they
learn,” Berkson says, “if you try and be a mentsh, it changes the way you feel about yourself
and it changes your world.”