Stanley Fischman wants his students to do the right thing – and more.
Fishman, director of general studies at the Ben Porat Yosef day school in Paramus, has just published a book encapsulating the moral lessons he has been teaching fourth graders.
“Seven Steps to ‘Menstschhood’: How to Help Your Child Become a Mentsch” is designed to enable parents to use classic Jewish principles as a framework for discussing the real challenges of ethics and character that children face.
It is based on a weekly course he has been teaching fourth-graders for more than a decade.
The seven principles start with what some have referred to as the Torah’s “golden rule” – “You should love your fellow man as yourself.” All are biblical verses.
It is the fifth principle that teaches that one can do better than doing right. The verse reads, “You shall do what is right and what is good in the eyes of God.” (Deuteronomy 6:18)
Fischman quotes the interpretation that doing good “in the eyes of God” means going beyond what is strictly demanded. “There are four choices one can make,” says Fischman. “The wrong choice, the neutral choice, the right choice, or the better-than-right choice.”
Fischman’s favorite example of choosing to do the better-than-right thing is Aaron Feuerstein, owner of Malden Mills. Thirteen days before Christmas in 1995, his Polartec factory burned to the ground. Instead of taking the insurance money and running elsewhere, which bankers and investment types were urging him to do, he assembled his workers the next morning at the factory’s burned-out site and announced that he would continue to pay his employees their wages and their health insurance. Less than a year later, he set down the cornerstone for the new Malden Mills – a mill he rebuilt so that his employees could go back to work.
That is not standard business practice, but he felt he had no choice. The Torah, Feuerstein told Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News, required him to do what he did. He then quoted the prophet Micah (6:8): “…and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love loving mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
What grounds Fischman’s ethical lessons – both in the classroom and the book – is the emphasis on the ethical challenges that 10-year-olds face.
For going beyond the letter of the law, Fischman gives the example of a child who sees classmates teasing a fellow student.
The wrong choice would be to join in. The neutral choice would be to do nothing. The right choice would be to tell the other children to stop.
The better-than-right choice, writes Fischman, is for the child to distract the children from their teasing.
Fischman’s classes in mentschlichkeit grew from a desire to address behavioral issues he saw at school. He began offering them at Westchester Day School, where he served as principal and head of school for 16 years, before moving to Ben Porat Yosef, where he is in his sixth year.
The book is designed for parents to read and review with their children, “and then encourage them to discuss the various situations that might occur in a classroom, so they will eventually learn how to be a mentsch in the school setting. It will help how siblings interact with each other at home as well,” he said.
“All of our Jewish behavior is connected with ethics and morality,” he said. “We have the perfect guide for it, which is the Torah.”
Fischman stresses that one reading of his book will not instantly turn children into mentschen.
“Building character is a life-long process. Parenting continues for a long time,” he says. “If parents are consistent and believe in what they’re teaching their children, there’s a good likelihood children will absorb those qualities and model it themselves.”