What Is A Mensch?

I HAVE ALWAYS been amazed at how words from a language that was so close to dying out have become so mainstream. Thanks to its recent revival, people of all faiths, cultures, and nationalities use Yiddish in their everyday conversations. Words like putz, chutzpah, tush, kvetch, nosh, schlep, schmooze, and others are heard in mainstream media, used online, and integrated anywhere that language is used. 

With everything going on around the country right now, it is all the more important for us to remember another Yiddish word: Mensch. Throughout my Jewish upbringing, I was taught, and reminded, that Judaism places central emphasis on being a good person – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. My teachers explained that our traditions and practices come directly from Torah, and also from its interpretation by great rabbis and scholars over thousands of years. 

In translating the meaning of these laws for my own children, I reference the Talmudic story in which Rabbi Hillel claims that this is the central tenant of Judaism and that all the rest is commentary. 

The word mensch encapsulates this concept. It comes from the German which literally means “man, person.” So, to be a mensch means to be a person. But what does it mean, to be a person?

In everything we do and say, Judaism teaches us that we should treat people the way we would like them to treat us and that this should permeate every aspect of our lives. Whether we are talking with someone who shares our beliefs and values or not, it is imperative that we approach others with respect and dignity.

When Michael Josephson spoke at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting in January he reminded us of that, especially in today’s climate, our character counts and if we try to remember to be mensch-like, then we will be embodying all that Judaism teaches and strives for us to be.

And maybe, through thoughtful acts of consideration, mensch will become as mainstream as some other Yiddish words. 

Because no one is talking about it,” a friend of mine shared recently. She was expressing concern about the increased number of bomb threats that recently targeted JCCs around the country. At the Jewish Federation, our national office and affiliate organizations have advised to stay on high alert and review our safety precautions and emergency response procedures. 

For many of us, it feels like every time we plug into our media we see coverage of an attack, renewed violence, or an affront on human rights. Part of me wonders whether this is because we live in an age of the 24-hour news cycle, or whether we really are witnessing a world that is growing increasingly ridden with strife and conflict.  

Our Jewish Federation leadership locally and nationally has been grappling with what we can do to address these challenges in our community. And, what we can do to address the sense of helplessness that accompanies tasks that feel so much larger than ourselves. When things feel completely out of our control, what is our role and where do we invest our energy and resources?

In speaking with my friend, she highlighted that a lot could be gained from directing one’s energy into doing good in our communities. Take the time to write letters to your congress people, volunteer with local issues, and take the time to unplug from the media. Get outside and make space for gratitude and appreciation of the people that matter in our lives. 

On a communal level, our Jewish Federation staff and leadership is busy working proactively with our community partners and the local interfaith community to take a united stance against injustice. Together we stand, in favor of a safe, inclusive, and secure San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys for the Jewish community and all of our neighbors. We are keeping our eyes and ears open, working with national organizations to ensure we have access to resources, and meeting with local elected officials to advocate both for our own needs and the needs of our neighbors. 

We recommend that together we meet our sense of helplessness with action. Write letters to local leadership and representatives voicing your priorities and concern. Volunteer to impact local issues that are of importance to you. And, consider joining a core group of volunteers at the Jewish Federation on February 12 for our annual Super Sunday to re-energize your commitment to the Jewish community this year.

On Sunday, March 5, the Jewish Federation will offer a workshop entitled How Global Events Impact Our Lives: Tools for Coping, where we will address the real-life application of how we can deal with what we are seeing and feeling. We hope to see you there.

Jason Moss is the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. He can be reached at jmoss@jewishsgpv.org.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here