If you drive down the road in Highland Park, Illinois, on many street corners you are likely to see a half-folded “Stop” sign with with the words:
In Highland Park
The sign then highlights one of six “Pillars of Character” which the Highland Park local government and educational community feel are an integral part of our communal philosophy: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. The Highland Park “Character Counts Campaign” aims to integrate classroom learning, “on the streets” learning and communal learning to instill the values implicit in these six pillars.
Each stop sign lists a different “pillar”. As you are driving around town, you can’t help but to notice and read these wonderful messages.
When I first moved to Highland Park, I was impressed with these signs all around town. “Wow!” I thought, “The messages on these signs are very Jewish in nature.”
The rabbis of old taught:
“Rabbi Elliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. How so? This teaches that even as on looks out for his fellow’s honor, so should he look out for his own honor. And even as no man wishes that his own honor be held in ill repute, so should he wish that the honor of his fellow shall not be held in ill repute.” (Rabbi Elieler ben Hyrcanus, in Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, paragraph 15; commentary from Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, chapter 15.
Our Highland Park “Character Counts” Campaign is about preserving honor and dignity. It is about teaching us to respect ourselves and those in our midst. It teaches the value of community and what it means to be an active and participating member of community.
I’ve been watching my 7th grade Religious School students live out these “Six Pillars of Character” all year.
I teach them on Wednesday late afternoons. They come to me after a long day of regular school. They are tired, hungry and now have another 1.5 hours of Judaic studies. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to sit still, they love the social time with each other. Many of them have been together as a group since kindergarten or first or second grade.
They are a terrific group of young teenagers. Each one of them has committed to remaining in Religious School after his or her celebration of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Each of these students, like many B’nai Mitzvah across North America, participates in Tikkun Olam or Mitzvah projects during this year of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. These are special social justice projects chosen by each student. The goal is for them to personally engage in the work of caring for others and repairing our world. Becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah implies accepting the privileges and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. Those responsibilities include continuing one’s Jewish learning, participating in the life of the Jewish community, celebrating Holy Days and taking care of our world. It also means that “Character Counts.”
One of my students, Chloe S., is the true exemplar of our “Character Counts” campaign. She is as much my teacher as she is my student. She conducts herself with graceful dignity. She volunteers as a “machonik” (student teacher) in the religious school. She has a wonderful way of being present with others. She and her family participate fully in the life of our congregational community. She takes it upon herself to learn new things, if she feels that her education was lacking.
Her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah talked about the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites built and carried with them in the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. Chloe said to herself, “I never learned about this Mishkan before!” So she and her father decided to build one, to help themselves learn more about it, to understand more deeply what it symbolized and what it meant.
On the morning of her Bat Mitzvah celebration, they surprised me and presented the completed model to me as a gift. So that I could use it to teach others about the Mishkan, its purpose and meaning.
If the future of our world is in the hands of these young people, we are in very good hands indeed!