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Character Day spurs students to ask, what makes a mensch?

Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz, a faculty member at Tucson Hebrew High, leads 10th grade students through an exercise on character development in the digital age on Aug. 11, during the opening program of the 2015-16 school year. (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew High)

What makes someone a mensch (a person of integ­rity)? Students at Tucson Hebrew High and the Tucson Jewish Community Center will join others worldwide in exploring that question as part of the second annual Character Day, a concept created by filmmaker Tiffany Shlain.

Known for her 2005 short film “The Tribe,” which used Barbie dolls to explore Jewish identity, Shlain will debut her latest film, “The Making of a Mensch,” on Character Day, Sept. 18. This year’s date was chosen because it is “smack dab in the middle of the High Holidays,” a time of “thinking about who you are and who you want to become,” Shlain told the AJP.

Mika Gisches, demonstrating her karate skills, says a mensch “uses karate to protect others.” (Courtesy Tucson Jewish Community Center)
Mika Gisches, demonstrating her karate skills, says a mensch “uses karate to protect others.” (Courtesy Tucson Jewish Community Center)

The new film will feature clips submitted by people around the world — a process Shlain calls “cloud filmmaking,” which she also used for “The Science of Character,” which launched Character Day last year.

Scott Zorn, director of children, youth and family engagement at the Tucson J, submitted videos of several local kids for the “Mensch” film, including Tyler Kebo, 10, who defined a mensch as “a boy scout that helps the elderly and is kind to the environment.” Zorn’s daughter, Hayley, 10, said, “A mensch is a person who does mitzvahs, which is being kind to one another,” while Mika Gisches, 9, said, “A mensch is a person who uses karate to protect others.” Zorn made sure to include cactus as an iconic symbol of Tucson, but he won’t know if any of his clips made the cut until he sees the film.

The J will join more than 4,000 Jewish schools, synagogues and other organizations around the world in screening “The Making of a Mensch,” which Shlain’s nonprofit company, Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change, is distributing for free.

Along with the film and a short discussion, the J’s Build Character Day program will feature a variety of games and activities, including a “character picture share and care,” says Zorn, who was previously an art therapist at Jewish Family & Children’s Services. Children in the J’s afterschool program will take part in Build Character Day on Friday, Sept. 18 from 4-5:30 p.m., which is open to all elementary school aged children in the community. Parents are welcome to join in.

As the afternoon draws to a close, participants will crack open character fortune cookies (gluten free, notes Oren Riback, the J’s new assistant director of children, youth and family engagement). The program will end with a Tashlich ceremony at the J’s fountain, where children can think about their commitment to be a mensch in the coming year as they throw bread crumbs into the water, says Julie Zorn, the J’s Jewish culture specialist.

Sharon Glassberg, principal of Tucson Hebrew High, will lead one of the activities at the J.

Glassberg has been using Shlain’s films at Hebrew High for years. Presenting serious concepts with a light touch, they are “great as triggers; everybody takes away something completely different,” she says.

Since Hebrew High doesn’t meet on the official Character Day, she plans to use the theme throughout the semester. On the school’s opening night, Aug. 11, she screened “The Science of Character,” which includes the quote, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny,” attributed to businessman Frank Outlaw. Updating the quote for the digital era, she had students fill in the blanks for “Watch your texts, they become ____. Watch your tweets …” and so on.

“It was amazing, what they came up with, and it really got them to think about what they put out there and what could be the potential outcomes,” she says. Some responses were a bit humorous —“Watch your Facebook posts, they become your FBI dossier”— but nevertheless reflected a realization that online comments can follow you long term, she says. Others zeroed in on the idea that your posts and tweets may become “the outside perception of who you are.”

During the year, she’ll have students choose a character trait they want to strive for, based on the “Periodic Table of Character Strengths” Shlain devised for “The Science of Character” and a Jewish version created by one of the collaborators on “The Making of a Mensch,” Rabbi Avi Orlow. In the style of the blog Humans of New York, Glassberg will photograph students with quotes about the character traits written on a white board and create #TucsonHebrewHighCharacter on Twitter.

While many traits on the two tables overlap, the “Mensch” version adds such concepts as “compassionate criticism” (in Hebrew, tochecha) and “whole and at peace” (shleimut).

“The Making of a Mensch” film and the “Making Mensches” periodic table are based on the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar, says Shlain, which she calls “a curated collection of our wisest Jewish teachings on character.”

It was after she made “The Science of Character,” she explains, that she first heard about Mussar from Jewish educators, who asked her to create a Jewish version of the film. “I was fascinated,” she says, noting that the “Mensch” film will be accompanied by character cards and “a very robust website that will delve deeper.”

Delving deeper also applies to Shlain’s own Jewish journey.

She grew up “culturally Jewish,” celebrating her Bat Mitzvah and the High Holy Days but not Shabbat. As the creator of the Webby awards for excellence on the Internet, she was invited to join the first class of Reboot, which “identified Jewish cultural leaders who were not necessarily engaged in traditional ways,” she says, adding that she was surprised at how eager she was to talk about Jewish topics. Around the same time she met her husband, Ken Goldberg, who had grown up with the tradition of celebrating Shabbat, and he took her to Israel for their honeymoon.

“The Tribe,” which grew out of those experiences, was Shlain “wrestling with my identity.” She’s made many films since, including “Technology Shabbats” (2013), about how her family now shuts down all screens (computers, phones, etc.) for the 24 hours of the Sabbath, “a profound experience.” Now, she says,”The Making of a Mensch” reflects her musings as a mother of two on “meaning and purpose and being a good person in the 21st century — and how do we bring in Judaism and make it relevant.”

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