The Job of Making Mensches: Campers with Integrity and Honor

Photo courtesy of JCC Camp Chi, Lake Delton, Wisconsin

By Avi Katz Orlow

Clayton M. Christensen (2017), professor at the Harvard Business School and one of the foremost authorities on disruptive innovation, wrote:

“Customers rarely make buying decisions around what the “average” customer may do, but often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve. Conventional marketing techniques teach us to frame customers by attributes — using age ranges, race, marital status, and other categories that ultimately create products and entire categories too focused on what companies want to sell, rather than on what customers actually need. With an understanding of the “job” for which customers find themselves “hiring” a product or service, companies can more accurately develop and market products tailored to what customers are already trying to do, and can predict what customers will and will not purchase.”

Christensen’s insight is not limited to the world of commerce. Those of us who work in the field of camping must explore what the parents of our campers (“customers”) are “hiring” us to do. At the most basic level, summer camp is in the business of selling and delivering extraordinary summer experiences to campers and staff. If we approach camp from a purely marketing perspective, we know from experience that parents are looking for a camp that has a great program, an exceptional staff, and pristine (or even state-of-the-art) facilities. In these functions, camps are like any other business. But what really is the “job” of camp?

Camp exists not only to sell our specific products to a given market, but also to do the difficult and mission-driven work of raising engaged, community-minded campers who share their intelligence and zeal in the present and in the future to make camp a more wonderful experience for all. On a deeper level, parents’ “problem” is to ensure that their children belong to something that has meaning. They are looking for a place beyond their family where their children fundamentally matter. They want their children to find a special place in a camp community.

Having worked with Jewish camps across North America for nearly 20 years, my experience reveals that there is something beneath the ubiquitous tagline “friendships that last a lifetime.” Most Jewish camp directors I know understand that the job that camps are hired to do is to make their campers into mensches. For all of my non-Yiddish-speaking readers, a mensch is a person of integrity and honor. According to Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character” (1968).

While schools do the job of developing our students’ cognitive skills and mental capacities, camps develop our campers’ and staff members’ affective skills and social capacities. Due in a large part to the absence of tests and the proximity of ideal role models (many of whom are close in age to the campers), camp is the ideal place to make mensches. The job of camp, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, is to nurture our campers and our staff members to become exemplary citizens.

Even if camp’s job is clear, doing it well is not so easy. More often than not, the camp professionals with whom I have been honored to work operate from a place where they are committed to a sometimes vague notion of camp tradition and rely on a profound camp instinct. Although they know they were hired to make mensches, many lack the sophistication, vocabulary, or methodology to do this work as well as they want. What would it take for camps to make the shift to being intentional, explicit, and consistently excellent?

Early on in this work I realized that “making mensches” is just too big of an idea. It was necessary to break that big idea into component parts to make it more manageable and more teachable. It would also help if we had a scheme to classify all of these subordinate parts. I found this much-needed taxonomy in the brilliant work of psychologist and educator Martin Seligman. He and fellow psychologist Christopher Peterson created what they describe as a “positive counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).” While the DSM focuses on what can go wrong, their Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004) is designed to spotlight what can go right. Their research looked across cultures and across millennia to distill a manageable list of virtues that have been highly valued from ancient China and India, through Greece and Rome, to contemporary Western cultures. However, the 644-page tome was more than daunting.

Then I discovered the work of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. She has done amazing work bringing this “Science of Character” (Shlain, 2013) to the public, both in a short film called Making of a Mensch (2015) and in supporting materials, such as a visually stunning Periodic Table of Character Strengths. Shlain took Seligman’s work and made it accessible to the masses. Upon meeting her, I recognized the opportunity using contemporary technology to share the ancient Jewish approach to making mensches with modern-day audiences. Inspired by our work together, I created Making Mensches: A Periodic Table built on the science and conceptual framework of Seligman and the accessibility of Shlain. I was able to encode in this resource more layers of Jewish thought in the hope that this enhanced content would create a rich cultural context to aid in the job of making mensches. Together with my colleagues at the Foundation for Jewish camp we disseminated a Making Mensches poster and a partner resource with some simple prompts to help Jewish camp professionals engage their campers, staff, and boards. We were not certain where this project would go, but we knew that we wanted to help camp professionals build community by instilling non-academic skills, creating intentional experiences, and making mensches more effectively.

I learned four major lessons from camp professionals the summer we released the Making Mensches package to the field. Some or all of these might be of immediate use to you as you think about character education at your camp.

One: Picking Virtues

The most common response I received from camp professionals when they first saw the 43 virtues mapped out on the Making Mensches: A Periodic Table was, “I love this! This is my camp.” I felt validated because they deeply connected to their job, but worried that in picking everything they were choosing nothing. I encouraged camps to really focus on the character of their camp by curating only a handful of virtues. Maintaining this focus and discipline helped camp leaders sharpen their programs. Once they could define their program in light of their core virtues, it was easier to train their staff to deliver on those virtues. If they could name it, they could teach it. This laser focus also helped camp directors deal with staff issues that arose due to misbehavior or even out of devotion to camp traditions that no longer fit the new norms the core virtues expressed. The virtues themselves were as traditional as you could imagine. As camps began to put forth their core virtues, their selections did not relegate the pursuit of other virtues or behaviors to the dustbin. They were just outside the scope of the job their camp was hired to do. Differentiating their camp product would ensure that they would recruit the right families and campers who would be loyal to their camp for years to come.

Two: Virtues and Values

Another frequent response to the Making Mensches: A Periodic Table was, “I love these values, but what about value A, B, or C?” In the context of Jewish life, the values they wanted to see were often things like Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), Jewish Prayer, or the State of Israel. While these are all things to value deeply, they are not virtues. In English, it is easy to confuse values and virtues. The distinction between our virtues and our values is key to providing quality character education.

A second critique of the tool was its perceived universalism (as opposed to Jewish particularism). Camp leaders would say, “There is nothing distinctively Jewish on this table besides the use of Hebrew terms.” While there are many additional valences of meaning for those steeped in tradition that are communicated when using the Hebrew, I would agree that for a vast majority of these virtues there is nothing distinctively Jewish about them. In many respects, this is the strength of good character education; it speaks to the universal human condition. This does not at all take away the importance of distinctive cultures having different values. Rather, starting from a position of discussing virtues opens up conversations in a much more interesting way.

Each and every religion, sect, faith tradition, and culture creates a context for the commitments that are personally meaningful and universally relevant. All too often the contemporary conversations about how we value different things start and end with disagreement, disputes, or even violence. When we engage in the job of allowing ourselves to start the conversation about how we differ in how we prioritize values, we can hold a lot more space for differences. From the vantage point of virtue we can even come to an understanding about why we ought to disagree. In my experience, the thorniest issues arise when two people from two ideologies claim the same values but act on them differently. In my Jewish community this could be expressed in how people passionately disagree about how to observe Shabbat, how we pray, and especially how to relate to the State of Israel. These values serve as profound manifestations and platforms to communicate differing priorities of virtues. From a camp’s organizational level, it is incredibly helpful to clarify virtues and then to use them as a lens to ensure the camp is living its values. This in turn loops back to the process of selecting and embedding virtues that help the camp refine its program, which makes it easier for the camp to do its job.

Three: Common Language

In an exciting development, a number of camps extended this resource, using it as part of a whole-staff orientation. Some camps went further with Making Mensches and had their bunk staff use the table to empower each bunk to create its own Bunk Brit (a covenant or social contract). This approach significantly changed how one camp dealt with discipline issues. As in other summers, there was a chain of command implemented for these situations and eventually the camper in question would find him or herself sitting before the camp director. Where in the past the conversation would start with the camp director telling the camper what he or she did wrong, that summer things were different because of the virtues that suffused the camp at every level. The director knew the entire camp had seen, worked with, and had some fluency in the Making Mensches taxonomy. He chose to sit with the camper, pull out the table, and ask the camper to explain what was happening for him or her. The director shared how much things changed in these interactions on all sides.

Having conversations about shared virtues changes people’s expectations for what is laudable and what is not permitted in the community. Making sure that everyone in camp is on the same page created a profound sense of accountability. Having a common language in the camp around these virtues empowers campers to own their behavior and to ask for support when they need it. We always say that camp is a child-centered environment. With the depth of a common language of character education, we can live that conviction out to the fullest. Instead of saying that we make mensches, we realize that we create an environment in which our campers and staff members make themselves into admiral people worth emulating.

Four: Group Trust

Some of the best work in character education happens in the camp bunk. In a world that is increasingly virtual, online, and anonymous, the bunk holds a place to be truly present. The nature of a bunk is that it balances the needs of the group with the needs of its members. In a context where nothing is real and everything takes place in public, the bunk stands as a sanctuary where people can explore their authentic selves and also get genuine, compassionate feedback. But if the bunk is not emboldened and entrusted with the deep conversations around virtues we aspire to manifest, we are not doing our job. If we want to do the deep work of maximizing each and every person’s growth and development, we need to invest in this group so it can mature and live up to its potential of being trusted and trusting. This is the group that will create “friendships that last a lifetime.”

The Next Chapter

We have established that camp offers an ideal environment for character education. The 2014 Making Mensches: A Periodic Table harnessed this potential and helped to develop a common language among Jewish camps to pursue this holy work. The excitement of camp leaders and educators, and the creative initiatives they developed, have inspired the Foundation for Jewish Camp to take the project to the next level. We’re thrilled to share an expanded, interactive website version of Making Mensches (see sidebar for web address), made possible by The AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Maimonides Fund.

We developed this project to help people explore how to communicate each of these virtues through text, programs, and assorted media. Like the process of actually making mensches, this tool will continually evolve as a living resource bank. We encourage you to spend some time with it, adapt it for your own cultural background, and potentially help us grow this resource by sharing your programs and your text and media inspiration for these virtues.

Like the original poster version of the table, there’s no wrong way to use this. We can’t wait to hear about the moments of intentional character development you create for your campers, staff, board members, and/or family members. Camp is incredibly important in our ever-changing world. The world needs the stability of more pillars of the community known for their outstanding moral compass and their ability to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Making mensches is serious work and we all have a big job to do.

References

Christensen, C.M. (2017). Jobs to be done. Christensen Institute. Retrieved from christenseninstitute.org/jobs-to-be-done/

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York, NY: American Psychological Association / Oxford University Press.

Rosten, L. (1968) The joys of Yiddish. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Shlain, T. (2015). Making of a Mensch. Let it Ripple Film Studio. Retrieved from letitripple.org/films/making-of-a-mensch/

Shlain, T. (2013). The science of character. Let it Ripple Film Studio. Retrieved from letitripple.org/films/science-of-character/

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Before joining FJC in 2008, Avi was the campus rabbi and assistant director of the St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and has held numerous positions as rabbi, educator, and youth leader. He spent 17 years as a camper and then educator at Ramah Camps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and YUSSR camps in the Former Soviet Union. Avi has a BA in religious studies from Columbia University and was ordained in the charter class at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox rabbinical school. He lives in White Plains, New York, with his wife, Cantor Adina Frydman, and their children, Yadid, Yishama, and Emunah.

This article is reprinted with permission.

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