By Laura Seymour
“Mensch on a Bench” — good idea or crazy? Have you heard about Neal Hoffman and his “mensch marketing”? Hoffman and his wife are an interfaith couple raising their sons Jewish. The December dilemma is different for every family but Neal did not want to give his son an “Elf on the Shelf” — he wanted an alternative. As a previous worker in the toy industry, he had experience with toy development. He developed “Mensch On a Bench” for Hanukkah and took it all the way to ABC’s Shark Tank. He got two offers and more importantly, got us all interested and talking.
Great story? Yes, but what motivated the JCC to buy the enormous “Mensch on a Bench” that sat in the lobby during Hanukkah and now resides outside my office? Hoffman focused on Hanukkah and wrote a book to go with the mensch and is now coming out with a Passover follow up. Again, great ideas but being a mensch is not just about the holidays — it is about how we live our lives and what we hope our children will become. Parents in the “old days” would tell their children, “Be a mensch!” We didn’t always understand, but over time the expectation sunk in. We were supposed to be good people, do the right thing, stand up for others — all of this when it was often hard to make those choices.
The actual giant “mensch” is a visual reminder for us, but especially for children. This past week, we introduced our mensch who finally got named after much discussion and voting. Mendel Hershel, the Mensch (Mendy for short) was visited by each of our early childhood classes. After shaking his hand or patting his belly or giving him a hug, we talked about what it means to be a mensch and let every child (and teacher) know that being a mensch starts young and you are never too old. Now as our children walk by Mendy, they greet him and remind themselves how they should treat others, the world and themselves. Along with our monthly Jewish values, we are teaching and building “mensches” for today and tomorrow.
Now Neal Hoffman is continuing to develop and market — he wants the mensch to be everywhere and have lots of “mensch themed stuff.” Am I a believer in marketing Judaism with “cool stuff”? I’m for whatever works to get kids and adults thinking about the messages of Judaism. It is like Hillel who was challenged to explain Judaism while standing on one foot. His quick message was, “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you (paraphrased a bit). Easy — not really but the hard part was the next line that he said before putting his foot down emphatically — “THE REST IS COMMENTARY. GO AND STUDY!” Let’s get the essence and then comes further learning!! So, today and everyday — BE A MENSCH!
Shalom … from the Shabbat Lady.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.