Jewish Journal

How I Define Mensch: Seven People on Unique and Holy Paths

by Lia Mandelbaum

March 9, 2012 | 3:45 pm

When all is said and done, holiness and wholeness and any other elevated idea of the spiritual goal come down to a simple Yiddish notion:  you are supposed to be a mensch, which means “a decent human being.”  That one Yiddish word conveys the full measure of the integrity, honor, and respect that a person can hope for in this life.  In the words of the Chassidic teacher, known as the Kotzker, “Fine,” he says, “be holy.  But remember first one has to be a mensch.” 
- Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis

Here are seven individuals that I truly believe to be mensches.  They all have inspiring messages, whether through their legacy or through the impact they are making today.  They bring holiness into the community…

Gregory Metzger- Greg is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the Program Manager at Jewish Committee for Personal Service.  He visits with Jewish inmates in jails and prisons all over California, to help them re-align or remain aligned, with their divinity.  He leads Shabbat services, teaches Torah study and meets one-on-one.  These individuals have lost their way, and Greg goes into the darkness with them, to help them search, face and understand themselves.  He has empathy and understanding about what it is like to trudge through great darkness.  Although he has not done time in prison, he was definitely imprisoned by an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and had to see his world come crashing down.  Greg had a very successful career in the business world.  For three years, he was a featured presenter at Wharton’s Symposium for business professionals from Harvard, Chicago, MIT, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, etc.  He was the National Practice Leader for DC pension consulting at Ernst & Young and Watson Wyatt.  After he lost everything, he chose to change his ways by truly facing himself.  Today, the world that Greg has rebuilt around and within himself illuminates the sacred truth that no matter how lost one may be, we all still possess an innate holy essence and have the potential to bring greatness to the world.  He walks on a path of truth, and sees the holiness in living through loving actions.  I genuinely love and respect Greg.  We have both been blessed to witness one another trudge through and transcend our darkness.  Gregory Metzger is a mensch.

Let Our Hearts and Minds Not Be Fooled By Subtle Forms of Slavery…Written by Greg Metzger

The Call from the Rainbow… A Parshat Noach written by Greg for The Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:  She was a pioneer when it came to acknowledging and addressing the topic of death and dying.  She relayed her insight and wisdom surrounding a subject that society often does not want to talk about, or understand how to cope with.  Her work empowered those who were in the process of dying in a tremendously beautiful way, by helping to mirror the patient’s dignity and autonomy back to them.  I admire the compassion she had for a population that is so often tucked away and hidden out of fear.  Even years after she has passed away, her legacy continues to help others cope and understand the process of death and dying.  A quote of hers that I find to be very poignant, and speaks to my own experience with death is “For those who seek to understand it, death is a highly creative force. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death.”  I have managed to tune into that creative force she speaks of, regardless of how painful the process was for me to walk through.  I am currently a hospice volunteer and find it so incredibly powerful and rewarding in my spiritual journey.  Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a mensch.

Here is beautiful example of the autonomy, dignity and purpose that she used to help empower a patient and their family members:

Asher Gellis:  Asher is the executive director of JQ International, which is a Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgender (GLBT) Jewish movement founded to serve as an infrastructure and community building space for GLBT Jews.  JQ helps GLBT Jews to feel more whole, as they get the chance to integrate their sexual orientation and spirituality.  When coming across any GLBT programing in the Los Angeles area, Asher Gellis has had something to do with it, whether directly, indirectly or on a collaborative level.  He is a pioneer in bringing a GLBT voice to the Jewish community.  He also trains clergy, educators, and administrators on what it means to be an inclusive Jewish community for the GLBT population.  These days, raising funds is not an easy task for any non-profit, but I admire Asher because getting funding and support for his cause has been an incredibly tough uphill battle that someone could easily feel defeated by, but for years he has continued to fight for a population that is often voiceless and invisible.  I recently did a paper on identity building for GLBT youth, and I came to understand that peer-mentoring programs are such powerful resources.  I view Asher as a mentor to me, who has made such a huge impact in my life that I almost can’t even wrap my head around.  I am so grateful for Asher.  He is kind, and immensely thoughtful, sweet and extremely bright.  Asher Gellis is a mensch.   

JQ International in collaboration with Hebrew Union College’s Institute for Judaism & Sexual Orientation, created a GLBT Haggadah that integrates GLBT Passover traditions within the spirit of the traditional Passover experience.
For an online copy of the Haggadah go to: http://www.jqinternational.org/haggadah.php

Craig Taubman:  I feel like I don’t need to mention who Craig is, because I have observed the tremendous presence that his music has in the Jewish community on a global level.  Plus I kind of find it hard to describe him because his work is so dynamic.  A “Jewish folk singer” doesn’t cut it.  I have a special place in my heart for Craig.  I know that I am not alone.  Craig has helped bring healing to my life, not only through his music, but also through his kindness.  I had the opportunity to work for him on the 6th annual “Let My People Sing” event.  It was called Ashkenafard, and the theme of the festival was “Reuniting the Diaspora.”  As you can imagine, it was a big project that took a great deal of outreach, and one of my big tasks was to get sponsorship.  The truth is that I have struggled with asking for money, and found myself lost in fear and doubt.  I knew that a very painful pattern of mine was being triggered, where my fear gives the wrong impressions and I loose my voice, and ultimately self-destruct.  One day, Craig had asked my opinion about something, and after I responded he told me that he wanted to sit down and talk.  I figured I had destroyed the opportunity to work with him.  Instead, he said that the opinion I had given him the other day, reminded him of how I am a very bright and sensitive person who feels things very deeply, and I needed to use it to empower myself and not forget who I am.  We would check in with each other to make sure that I was on track and not feeling lost and disconnected.  I can’t even tell you how much that meant to me.  While working with Craig, I witnessed a tremendous amount of people from all over the world, relay with such sincerity, the value and special meaning that Craig had brought to their life.  I was told about the kind acts he had done for others, that were profoundly meaningful for them.  I also know that Craig truly appreciates the loving feedback that he receives, because as a super busy person, the love helps to keep him going strong.  It is a reciprocal relationship.  Craig Taubman is a mensch. 


Performance of Holy Ground

Esther Kustanowitz:  Esther wears many many hats…she is a Jewish blogger, a social media consultant, works for the Los Angeles Jewish Federation as the Program Coordinator for NextGen Engagement Initiative, and does Jewish innovation consulting for the ROI Community.  Esther has a list of really fantastic titles, but the titles will not give her justice in relaying the impact of these different roles. The level of impact that Esther is making within the Jewish community on a macro-level is tremendous and will be reverberated through generations to come.  Because Esther is so humble and down to earth, I don’t know if she even truly knows the gravity and beauty of the impact she is making.  If someone were able to step back, and truly be able to understand and grasp the magnitude of the mark she is making on the world, they would be so amazed and proud.  Esther is a part of the leadership at some of the most influential Jewish programing found around the world, and is helping to create spaces where Jews can discover and decide what being Jewish means to them, find connection with fellow Jews while also discovering and respecting our differences, express our individuality and creativity, and figure out how we want to integrate our Judaism into our everyday lives.  Her captivating wit and intellect, can not help but make us want to stick around and be a part of the Jewish scene.  I am proud and honored to be able to call Esther my friend.  She is definitely someone I look up to.  Esther Kustanowitz is a mensch.

Esther was named one of the Top Ten Jewish Influencers by the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Her achievement was also covered in the Huffington Post.

Other websites to check out:

Rabbi Sarah Bassin- When I initially tried to describe what I believe to be so powerful about the work Rabbi Sarah Bassin does, I was having a tough time, and I realized that it was because the very nature of her work lies in existing in the “gray area,” and non-linear thinking…where black and white thinking cannot thrive (and fortunately so).  Rabbi Bassin is the Executive Director of NewGround, which is a successful organization that brings Muslims and Jews together to establish a new relationship.  Rabbi Bassin demonstrates how to live a life with conviction, through the belief that there is an intrinsic therapeutic value in the process of establishing a new relationship, such as new beginnings, new perceptions, new allies and friends.  I respect her conviction, but also her ability to manage remaining balanced and grounded while in the “gray area.”  It truly takes a lot of skill to remain open-minded, flexible, and be able to see all the different sides within polarized situations.  The tumultuous relationship that often happens between Muslims and Jews has a harsh reality to face, but I can tell you from my own personal experience with NewGround, that allowing myself to be vulnerable and transparent around those I may have stigmatized or demonized, is so powerful and healing, and has opened my life up.  Through NewGround, Rabbi Bassin is a guide that invites others to be all that they are, in a safe and transformative space, where wisdom can manifest liberation and love.  Rabbi Sarah Bassin is a mensch.


Erica Mandelbaum, a.k.a Momski:  When I say that my mom is my hero, I am not just saying that because she gave birth to me and I love her.  Separate from the fact she is my mother, she is an extraordinary human being, whom I feel embodies the love and liberation that I continue to strive for on a daily basis.  The way she chooses to handle the adversity and challenges in her life, has taught me what it means to be a spiritual warrior.  At the age of 39, my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.  Before my mom was diagnosed, she was an avid and successful runner that never thought twice about whether or not her body would be functional enough to run in the next race.  She was extremely proactive in the community at large, and was seen as an incredibly sharp and eloquent go-getter, and never thought that there would be days where she would find herself waiting in her car for an hour in the parking lot across from the building she worked at, praying that her medication would just kick in and the tremors would stop.  The entire meaning of your life can change in a moment, and for her it was with a diagnosis.  I saw my mom go through a period where anger and sadness held her hostage, but one day she decided that she had enough with feeling sorry for herself and that she was going take charge of her life, and not let the disease take control.  My mom is a spokesperson and role model within the Parkinson’s community.  She has helped to put together major fundraisers for Parkinson’s research, bringing speakers on board such as Rasheeda Ali-Walsh, who is one of Muhammad Ali’s daughters, the American political commentator and journalist Morton M. Kondracke, and the former Los Angeles Times editor and reporter Joel Havemann.  She has received two major brain surgeries on both lobes of her brain, called Deep Brain Stimulation, with both lasting over seven hours while remaining awake.  The implanted device is pretty much like a pace maker for the brain.  Only two months after her first surgery, she went from struggling to move, to running in a 15K race, and her story ended up on the front page of the Tampa Tribune.  People with Parkinson’s all over Florida reached out and contacted her because they felt empowered and hopeful through her bravery and strength.  I have seen my mom deliver many speeches, and have felt so proud, as I watched the audience be incredibly moved by her story.  She has received awards and recognitions for her bravery and impact, such as the Medtronic Global Hero Award.  People feel honored to engage with my mom.  Although the illness is progressive, and when my mom turns off her brain stimulators she is debilitated by severe tremors, when she does have them on, she continues to reach for the stars.  In May, my mom, who is a rock star, will be at her graduation receiving her Masters diploma in marketing from the University of South Florida College of Business.  My mother is a free woman.  She is incredibly witty and has a spirit that exudes a state of openhearted wisdom, innocence, trust, simplicity and joyful wonder.  She is my ultimate hero.  I have the most exquisite role model of strength.  My mom is the mensch queen.

Article about my mom running in a 15k race after brain surgery:

Article written by USF Oracle about my mom going back to college:

My mom honored as a Medtronic Global Hero:

I hope that you can feel the brilliance and beauty being reverberated through every single person I just wrote about.  They all shine such bright lights, and bring such profound messages through the work they do.  Do not miss the opportunity to engage and be touched by the holiness that these individuals bring forth. 




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