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“The Making of a Mensch”

Parent-education program offers a recipe for character development

By Cindy Mindell

Most Jews of Eastern European extraction know the directive, “Be a mensch,” invoking the Yiddish word for “decent human being.”

But how does one become a mensch? If there is a recipe for this aspiration, it was first codified in the 10th century as mussar (or musar), a Hebrew word which appears in the book of Proverbs and translates as “instruction,” “discipline,” or “conduct.” This blueprint for character development faded over time, until it was revived in the 1800s by Eastern European rabbis in response to social changes sparked by the Enlightenment in Europe. The mussar movement thrived in Eastern Europe until World War II, when the third generation of rabbi-leaders was all but wiped out by the Nazis. Some students of the movement resettled in Israel, where they established yeshivot based on mussar principles.

The U.S. didn’t see a revival of the movement until this century, when both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities established organizations and institutions that teach the discipline.

Next month, parents in Greater Hartford will get a taste of mussar and learn how to use Jewish values to build their children’s character. A joint program of the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford Family Room Parenting Center and PJ Library of Greater Hartford, “Parents Learning Nights” will be held three times in March, and will include a screening of a short video, “The Making of a Mensch.” Produced in 2015 by Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change. The video is not instructional, explains Jane Pasternak, director of the Family Room Parenting Center, rather it focuses on Jewish values that are universal: e.g., becoming a good person, practicing kindness and tzedakah, taking care of family and the environment. The screening will be followed by discussions and activities led by area rabbis.

“The focus of the Parent Learning Nights is how to do this in your family,” says Rabbi Debra Cantor, spiritual leader of B’nai Tikvoh Shalom in Bloomfield. Cantor will facilitate the March 2 Parent Learning Night.

“The insight of the mussar movement was not to invent these Jewish moral values; those were already there. The insight was how to bring these values into your life in terms of an ongoing practice. It’s very nice to say, ‘I want to be more ethical,’ but what does that look like and how do you do that? If you want to learn to play an instrument or be a really good soccer player or any of these things, you have to have a regular practice and you have to be accountable to yourself and to others. If your goal is so lofty or broad that it seems unattainable, you never start – it’s too discouraging. This program will help people think through how they are really going to do this, and not in a way that’s completely overwhelming, but in a way that’s very personal: here’s something we can realistically do and then let’s do it.”

PJ Library Parent Learning Nights will be held:

Wednesday, Mar. 2, 7 p.m.; Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, facilitated by Rabbi Debra Cantor of B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom

Wednesday, Mar. 9, 7 p.m.; Mandell JCC Valley Sports & Community Center, 310 Albany Turnpike, Canton, facilitated by Rabbi Howard Herman of Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom

Tuesday, Mar. 15, 7 p.m.; Congregation Kol Haverim, 1079 Hebron Ave., Glastonbury, facilitated by Rabbi Craig Marantz

The Making of a Mensch PJ Library Parent Learning Nights are free and open to the community and are co-sponsored by PJ Library, B’nai Tikvoh Sholom, Congregation Kol Haverim, Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom, and Mandell JCC Valley Sports & Community Center.  For reservation/information call (860) 231-6342 or email

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