Making Mensches

The goal of shaping high-quality people is especially foremost during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
October 6, 2005

Barbara Gereboff counts among her proudest moments an argument between two of her middle school boys. When Gereboff asked the hallway adversaries what the problem was, one boy responded, “He’s not treating me with kavod [dignity].”

The students had learned the term kavod through a values program at Kadima, a Conservative day school in West Hills where Gereboff is head of school. She says that teaching kids to be mensches is as high on the priority list as helping them master algebra and topic sentences.

And for the boys in the hall, something positive seemed to be sinking in.

The goal of shaping high-quality people is especially foremost during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Kadima and elsewhere, educators and students turn their attention to teshuvah, repentance, encompassing the whole process of character development and self-improvement.

But High Holiday lessons can ring hollow if becoming a better person is not a year-round pursuit. In a growing number of schools — Jewish and secular — programs on building character are being integrated into the curriculum. As the incubators of tomorrow’s adults, schools have begun to recognize a responsibility to produce graduates who treat each other well and are dependable members of society.

The challenge lies in ensuring that kids are not just memorizing lists of values and tucking them away with other academic minutiae, but are internalizing and applying them in everyday situations.

For Gereboff, the fact that a boy could summon the language of kavod in the heat of argument signaled that Kadima’s approach is making a difference.

Kadima starts with behavioral principles based on the notion that all people are created in the image of God, which requires them to act honestly, treat people with dignity, and improve the world in partnership with God.

These principles are posted around the school, and form the basis for a value-of-the-month program, which includes classroom lessons, recognizing exemplars of that value and a special assembly. Teachers look for moments in both formal teaching and in social interaction to reinforce those values.

This year, Kadima Rabbi Jacqueline Redner introduced a set of 20 Earth Angel value cards. Students can earn a card by displaying the particular value — such as honesty, or treating your environment well. They also can pull a card from a deck, which establishes a value they can aspire to through activities at home and in school.

“I really want to give the kids a sense of what it means to live your life in Kedusha [holiness], and what it means to be part of a people that is supposed to be holy in this world,” Redner said.

At New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, all students spend their first year of Jewish studies with Rabbi David Vorspan, who pioneered an approach he calls Kodesh Moments – moments of holiness.

On a recent Monday in early September, Vorspan introduced the concept to a class of freshly minted ninth graders.

“What does holy mean?” he challenged them. “What has the capacity to be holy?”

The students offered a white-board full of thoughts that Vorspan narrowed down. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior. It is acting most God-like. And it is being the best we can be, he said. Kodesh moments, he told them, arise when you sanctify an ordinary moment by looking for ways to elevate your behavior. That might mean stopping yourself from gossiping, he offered, or helping an injured friend up the stairs.

“The concept of Kodesh moments takes a teenager who thinks he can’t avoid temptations, and it shows them they can,” Vorspan said. “It puts them beyond the level of what teenagers think they can actually do,”

Kodesh Moment signs are posted around the school, programs and assignments deal directly with ethical development, and teachers are always on the lookout to point out a Kodesh moment — or its antitheses.

The administration is careful not to overuse the catch phrase, knowing that if trivialized, it could become a running joke among students at the four-year-old transdenominational high school.

Students say they take interpersonal ethics seriously, and according to some 10th- and 12th-graders, the emphasis on values creates an atmosphere of communal caring.

“I noticed with my parents that I have conversations with them and I don’t jump to conclusions, so I can have a more thorough discussion,” said J.J. Berthelson, a 10th grader who lives in Tarzana.

Reaching that level of penetration and practical application takes persistence and deliberate plan, says Michael Josephson, founder of Character Counts!, a Los Angeles-based program now being used by 6 million students in schools, athletic programs and youth clubs nationwide, including the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD).

“You need to make a conscientious effort to be proactive and pervasive in the way you emphasize values… so it becomes part of the natural framework in which children think,” said Josephson, whose short commentaries on ethics are featured daily on KNX-AM 1070.

Character Counts, a project of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, provides training and materials based on six pillars: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Developed at a 1993 summit by academics, religious leaders and mental health professionals, these characteristics, Josephson contended, are ones that every culture and religion can agree on.

Character Counts has been adapted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as “Catholic Character Counts,” and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — where Josephson is a member — will be the first Jewish school to translate the six pillars into Hebrew and add the notion of holiness for a pilot program called Menschlichkeit Matters.

Josephson tailors the training not just for teachers, but for athletic coaches through a program called “Pursuing Victory With Honor,” and for student leaders such as team captains and student body presidents.

Of course, the program is only as good as the educators implementing it. It works even better, they say, when the ideas are reinforced at home.

But research suggests that in Character Counts schools academic achievement improves, according to independent analyses of school records in several states where the program has been successfully utilized. In a study conducted by South Dakota University, everything from crime to drug problems to bullying and racism dropped at Character Counts schools across the state.

Bob Weinberg, a principal and former football coach, has spent five years making Character Counts central to his program at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a grade 4-through-12 magnet school.

“Academics are obviously important at this school — that is what we’re all about — but unless you have them in conjunction with ethics and treating each other with respect, all you really have is nothing, kind of an empty shell,” said Weinberg, past president and still a board member of LAUSD’s Association of Jewish Educators (AJE).

Weinberg begins each day with a PA announcement that includes a short anecdote on someone — in the school, in the news — who showed strong character, and he ends each announcement by saying, “And remember, character counts.”

In the high school, Weinberg said, the focus turns toward honesty and not cheating — whether it be cheating on tests or by downloading illegal free music or term papers.

Weinberg is a formidable role model for the students, and he expects a lot of them. In 2004, several players from a baseball team that had already clinched a spot in the championship series decided not show for the last two regular-season games, thus forfeiting the games. Weinberg, with his eye on character rather than the playoffs, had the team forfeit their spot in the postseason. Last year, that action won him the Pirkei Avot Award for ethical behavior from the AJE.

“Character is what you do and the decisions you make when no one is looking,” said Weinberg. “The most important thing is being true to yourself and true to what you know is right.”

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