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'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 synagogue boards.”

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.”