Making Mensches — One Student at a Time



January 4, 2018

College is often seen as a training ground for students — preparing them to navigate the world after walking across the graduation stage. But in the breaks between their academic classes and extracurricular activities, who is teaching them how to be mensches?

That’s where Hillel comes into play. 

Hillels from coast to coast have launched character building programs to train the next generation of mensches, nourishing the student soul through initiatives such as YouVM Connectors at University of Vermont Hillel.

Implemented in August, the program matches students with the Hillel professional who is best suited to help them bring their ideas to life and make an impact on campus through a Jewish lens. Prior to its fall kickoff, students used a goal-setting template designed by Hillel International to establish SMART goals, or clear objectives with measurable outcomes.

“The process of goal setting helps them recognize that their ideas can be a reality, they just have to take the steps to get there — that’s where we come in to offer our support,” said Sharon Silverman, assistant director at University of Vermont Hillel. “We want our students to learn skills, behaviors and traits they can carry with them well after they graduate.”

For Becca Marek ’20, becoming one of the roughly 35 YouVM Connectors nudged her out of her comfort zone. The 19-year-old said her involvement motivated her to step up to the plate and organize events at University of Vermont Hillel, including a Chanukah party. 

“It’s helped me grow as a leader, giving me the confidence to speak up for myself and voice my ideas inside and outside of Hillel,” Marek said. “Accomplishing the goals I set at the beginning of the program has made me want to do more on campus.”

YouVM Connectors is one of at least four character strengthening programs instituted by Hillels nationwide.  

In November, University of Southern California Hillel launched MENSCH, a peer-to-peer mentorship initiative modeled after the Mensch Program at Michigan Hillel. Based on their interests and passions, juniors and seniors are paired with first years to help them acclimate to college life. 

While some of these mensch building programs focus on leadership development and relationship building, others are challenging students to look within themselves.

Mensch Academy, created by Rabbi Getzel Davis of Harvard Hillel in September, has a simple goal: become a better person.

Comprised of approximately 15 students with varying Jewish backgrounds, the yearlong program incorporates the ancient teachings of Mussar with chavruta learning and open discussion, exploring positive personality traits, such as wisdom and courage, and how to embody them. 

“We found out where we were strong and where we could use help,” said participant Shalhavit-Simcha Cohen ’17. “Rabbi Getzel created a safe space for us to share and learn from each other, which is one of the best ways to learn.” 

While studying anavah or humility, Cohen recognized that she needed to find the proper balance between meeting her needs and the needs of others. She focused her attention on becoming a better listener. 

Rabbi Davis recommended Cohen and her peers to recite the mantra: “No more than my place, no less than my space.” And that pushed Cohen and her chavruta to ask each other once a day, “How can you practice anavah better today?”

“We’re drawing on a set of Jewish practices that are deeply relevant to our lives today,” Rabbi Davis said. “And this is a way that Judaism can be impactful and transformative for all students, no matter if they’re more observant or less observant.”