Seeking a good leader? Look for a mensch

The other night my husband and I sat down to review the sample ballot in preparation for the upcoming election. It took less than two minutes before a mild depression set in and I started looking for that glass of wine I hadn’t finished at dinner. I was upset, not just with the number of propositions, but with how they were written. Without advanced degrees in law and English, it’s almost impossible to understand what they say. When I started whining, my husband reminded me, as he often does, of what was most essential: We are privileged to live in a country where we have the right to vote freely, without fear of violence or retribution when we enter the polls.

Once I figured out where I stood on the propositions, I turned my attention to the candidates, the men and women competing for the privilege of serving our state and country. And here’s what I realized. I may not be an expert in the language or logic of the world of politics, but I do feel quite conversant in the world of people. And politics, when stripped of all party affiliations, divisive issues and public displays of power, boils down to one common denominator: people in relationship with other people.

So when I think of who I want to represent me in the arduous task of tackling the many complicated issues we face in this country today, I know who I want. I want a mensch in office. (And no, I don’t mean State Sen. Bob Mensch, who is running to retain his 24th District seat in Pennsylvania!)

Don’t laugh. It’s not as silly or simplistic as it may sound. A mensch, translated from Yiddish as “man” or “human being,” is a person of integrity, compassion, courage and honor. In today’s political arena, a mensch is the person who understands that there are democratic principles and moral imperatives that cannot be abandoned or sidestepped to gain personal or political clout. A mensch is willing to fight for the right of every individual to live a life of dignity, regardless of what it will do to him or her at the polls.

We learn much about the qualities of menschi-ness (okay, you may not find this one in the dictionary) from several great Jewish leaders in history.

Moses, one of our greatest and yet most reluctant leaders (he objected five times to God’s request to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt), was known for his humility and compassion as well as his righteous anger. He pleaded for mercy for the Hebrews when they sinned with the Golden Calf but acted swiftly and decisively in establishing a community that would follow God. He was a careful listener and capable arbiter, yet understood the necessity to delegate responsibilities.

Approximately 1,400 years later, Rabbi Hillel, Jewish sage and architect of rabbinic Judaism, became a revered leader of the Jewish people, interpreting Jewish law so as to make obedience feasible for all Jews. He was known for his kindness, gentleness and concern for all humanity. His rulings were often grounded in concern for the welfare of the individual and he sought dignity for all, regardless of background.

Moving into the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Torah scholar and Kabbalist, showed remarkable leadership as the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi under the British Mandate in Palestine. While a master of Jewish law (halachah) in the strictest sense, he also maintained an unusual openness to new ideas that drew many religious and nonreligious people to him. He had the courage to adhere to tradition but embraced people and ideas that deviated from his own, thereby becoming a great conduit for communication and political alliances among various Jewish sectors, including the secular Zionists, the religious Zionists and the non-Zionist Orthodox Jews.

I am not saying that being a mensch is all that it takes to become a leader. Obviously, there are other qualities, skills and expertise that must be present before I would want a person to take on the responsibility of office. Nor do I think that being a mensch is any guarantee that the results will be perfect since, by definition, a mensch is a human being — real and flawed — albeit one who strives to be good, honest and caring.

What I do know is that I would sleep better at night if I knew that, despite the political and ideological divisiveness that exists in politics today, the men and women who represent me are, at the very least, true mensches.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at

In her Oct. 15 column, Lederman raised the question, “What drives the Jews?” Submit your answer, 250 words or less, online at, via email to or by mail to AJP, 3822 E. River Road, Tucson AZ 85178. Online participants will be entered in a drawing for a copy of “Saul Bellow: Letters” edited by Benjamin Taylor.