Can acts of kindness help heal a fractured Israeli society? That’s the question a brand-new initiative targeted toward Israeli high school students, is trying to answer.
In 2009, Dr. Moshe Kaplan published Be a Mensch – Why Good Character Is the Key to a Life of Health, Happiness, Wealth and Love, an anthology of expert advice on improving one’s character.
The publication of the book led to the creation of the Be a Mensch Foundation. According to Kaplan, “The long-term goal of the Be a Mensch Foundation is to bring more unity to our nation. This is our real strength.
“By setting aside stereotypes and barriers to true ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews), by having each Jew show more kindness and consideration for his fellow, the level of gratification and happiness of each citizen will be enhanced. This will actualize Israel not only as an economic, military and technologically advanced society, but also as a socially integrated one, of happy, fulfilled people.”
The Be a Mensch Foundation sponsors a number of projects. Their most well-known endeavor is The Dialogue Project, which runs meetings every week throughout the entire county. At these meetings, specially screened and trained young haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men and women meet with secular youth groups and kibbutz members. The idea is to break down stereotypes and focus on what we have in common.
Kaplan wants participants to walk away from The Dialogue Project with the understanding that, “You may live your life differently from me, but we have to love our fellow Jews.”
Founded in Tel Aviv in 1926, Hamahanot Haolim is the first youth movement to have been established in pre-state Israel. Among the many letters offering praise for The Dialogue Project were these words from Hamahanot Haolim:
“It is so rare nowadays to find people willing to work for the promotion of understanding between the secular and ultra-Orthodox. I would like to thank you for such a fascinating conversation. The meeting was organized in such a professional and fun way. We were so surprised that the ultra-Orthodox youth [were] interested in talking. We were surprised to discover the person within.”
Building on the success of The Dialogue Project, the Be a Mensch Foundation is set to launch The Kindness Competition Project. In creating The Kindness Competition Project, Kaplan and the members of the Be a Mensch Foundation were inspired by the work of Orly Wahba, founder of the kindness-oriented nonprofit Life Vest Inside, and author of Kindness Boomerang: How to Save the World (and Yourself) Through 365 Daily Acts. Wahba moved to Jerusalem last summer.
The objective of The Kindness Competition Project is to cultivate an awareness among Israeli high school students “that they can affect real and positive change in their communities” through acts of kindness. The project also aims to increase the value of doing acts of kindness in the eyes of its high school-age participants.
The plan is to pilot the competition in select Jerusalem high schools, eventually expanding to Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba and other cities in Israel. Teams of high school students will be required to participate in kindness workshops, organized by the Be a Mensch Foundation. These workshops are designed to introduce participants to the “importance of acts of kindness to the individual as well as to the community.”
Once they have been trained, each team will create a Kindness Campaign, directing their acts of kindness, which will take place over a period of months, to specific populations such as Holocaust survivors, people with disabilities and the elderly.
Obviously, the high school students and the recipients of their acts of kindness will be the immediate beneficiaries, but the Be a Mensch Foundation also wants to raise awareness of kindness as a value in the community at large.
ACCORDING TO the project’s description, “School teams would be required to employ social media in order to maximize public awareness and word-of-mouth.” A Facebook page will be created for the competition, allowing each school to describe its kindness initiative, to demonstrate its impact on the community and to solicit Facebook likes.
In addition, there are plans to establish an Instagram account in order to make it possible for participants to upload photos of themselves engaged in acts of kindness and to employ relevant hashtags to further promote their activities.
Another feature of the Kindness Competition is the expected use of “Kindness Cards.” These are cards that participants will pass out in the community in order to encourage recipients to do a specific kindness. “The more ways you can expose people to an idea, the more the ideas are reinforced,” Kaplan commented.
An impressive panel of judges, including former members of Knesset, Nobel Prize winners and other public figures will determine the competition’s winners. A kindness trophy will awarded at a public ceremony and all participants will receive kindness-themed books and T-shirts as prizes.
Kaplan reflected on why The Kindness Competition Project is focused on high school students.
“We believe that before they go into the army, this is when people start making life decisions, when they think about what they’re doing. We’re trying to help them, in a very subtle way, to understand that there is a purpose for what they’re doing” by putting their lives at risk in the army.”
“There’s a reason for Israel to be around. We have something to offer the world. We have to stick together. We stay away from politics and religion. We are Jewish Israelis and we have to respect each other and get along with one another. We will sink together or swim together.”
Kaplan grew up in a Zionist family in Trenton, New Jersey. His brother Lonny was a former president and chairman of the board of AIPAC, and their father raised money to buy arms for pre-state Israel. Israeli basketball player-turned-goodwill-ambassador-for-Israel Tal Brody was his neighbor.
After completing medical school in 1971, Kaplan came to Israel on his own.
“I took every Egged bus tour from Metulla to Sharm el-Sheikh,” he recollected. When he wasn’t touring, he “sat on beach in Tel Aviv, eating apricots, drinking shoko [chocolate milk] and playing volleyball.”
After his first Israel experience, Kaplan returned to California, finished his residency and practiced medicine in San Francisco for 10 years. During those years, he became religiously observant and realized that he had to leave San Francisco to live as an Orthodox Jew. He made aliyah in 1986.
By his own report, he was a “single guy with a successful practice, a Rolls Royce and a big house in California. I came here alone. I only knew a few people. I didn’t know the language or the culture. I had my trials and tribulations.”
His first Shabbat in Israel as a religious Jew, he “ended up in Har Nof, by God’s plan. People spoke English there. It was freezing, wet. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? I must be out of my mind.’” He comforted himself with the thought that our Biblical forefather Abraham had only a tent, while he had a roof over his head and four walls.
Kaplan, who had run an emergency room in a New York City hospital, worked in Israel as a volunteer doctor. He willingly gave second opinions whenever consulted. He also contributed his skills to Magen David Adom and Hatzalah and was one of the founders of Chovesh Har Nof, a first responder unit.
Some 13 years ago, at age 60, Kaplan married his current wife. Their first child will soon turn a year old.
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