The Free Dictionary defines the term “mensch” as “a person having admirable characteristics…” This definition suggests that you might not worry about lending $20 to a mensch, or carpooling with him or her. Certainly, such a person would return the sum with a thank-you card and would be consistently waiting on the sidewalk each morning as you drive up. It’s as simple as that.
I don’t know if I buy this explanation. To me, the actions above just make someone a good person, not a mensch. My gut tells me that a mensch is something more—an extraordinary person, perhaps. A person who cares enough about a cause to donate not just money, but time and effort. For example, a mensch, instead of writing a check to support a food bank, spends his or her Christmas physically serving meals to the homeless. He or she is willing to spend time, our society’s most valuable commodity, in an effort to make someone else’s life better.
Why did I bring this up? Friday, I had the opportunity to see a lecture by both Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Such a visit prompted a great deal of excitement on campus. And why not? From the finals-crazed scholars looking for a sugar rush to the marijuana junkies seeking to quell the insistent munchies, Ben & Jerry’s holds a special place in every student’s heart. Now, we were finally going to get the chance to bow before our pagan gods of gastrointestinal satisfaction. Besides, there was free ice cream after the event.
I don’t know what I expected out of the whole thing. A little humor here, a little business there, and one of those dainty little containers of ice cream. And it did start that way. Jerry began by explaining how the two geniuses of dairy met, how the first Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont got started, and how the company grew. Finally, he turned it over to Ben.
As Ben spoke, I sat in rapt (and surprised) attention. The lengths that the company went to give back to the community were astounding. Instead of marketing Ben & Jerry’s to venture capitalists, the two CEOs decided to allow the company to be held by the citizens of Vermont, where the first shop was born. The stocks sold rather cheaply and soon one out of every hundred families in Vermont owned a piece of the pie, so to speak. But Ben and Jerry didn’t stop there. The company uses only Vermont cream in its ice cream and has a pact with the local farmers to keep bovine growth hormones from the milk, keeping both cows and consumers healthy.
Ben then went on to explain how he branched out into the public sector as an individual. Curious about the allocation of discretionary funds in the federal budget, he gathered together a group of defense and CIA officials to discuss the amount of money given to the Pentagon for military spending each year. It turns out that much of the defense budget was still mired in Cold War-era spending for an arms race that the US was no longer participating in. From this revelation was spawned Ben’s Oreo cookie demonstration, a Flash cartoon that shows how $60 billion dollars can be taken from the Pentagon budget and used in rebuilding America’s failing schools and decreasing world hunger. This also saw the birth of Truemajority.org, a grassroots organization focused on lobbying support from congressmen and –women for various liberal issues. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Ben has proven himself to be a true mensch by physically getting out and doing something to fix a problem.
As with every presentation I go to, I was motivated by this speech to head out and participate in a little mensch-liness myself. It so happened that I was scheduled to help at Chester County’s Arc program that weekend, so everything seemed to be falling into place. However, as I was getting ready Saturday morning, I was wondering if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Although I’m a third-year camp counselor, working with developmentally and mentally challenged children was totally beyond my experience. My knowledge of autism, Down’s syndrome, and the like was somewhat lacking. And now I had signed up for a five hour excursion with these kids. What had I gotten myself into?
I arrived at The Arc and was quickly presented with the dossier of the kid I was to work with. It turns out that Ted, my “kid,” was a tad older than I was. Would that make things more awkward? Now I was seriously afraid and shaking a little, the paper crinkling in my hand.
“Who has Ted?” I gingerly raised my hand and toddled over to an individual who, if anything, looked several years younger than his twenty years. And, as usual, I had been quaking over nothing. Ted was a shy boy who only began to smile after I made some inane comment about the weather.
“Looks like it’s going to rain.”
“No!” he shouted, suddenly grinning widely.
“What do you mean ‘no’?” I put my hands on my hips. “Look at the clouds! It’s clearly going to rain and we’re all going to get wet!”
I smiled back at him. “We’re gonna get soaked!”
The tension was broken. Ted soon learned that he could make me laugh by shouting a word, and then he figured out that he could make me laugh harder by imitating my giggle. Clearly, this arrangement didn’t make for stimulating conversation, but at least he was having a good time.
On the drive home, a friend mentioned to me that by coming, I had enabled one more special needs child to have an exciting weekend. This produced a warm feeling that usually accompanies a mitzvah. Suddenly, the five hours spent at The Arc were not just time spent racking up community service hours; it was physically making the life of one person better for at least a short period of time. I may not have spearheaded a campaign to repair the federal budget, but it was at least something.
And that, my friends begins my journey into (I hope) mensch-hood.