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A new documentary film asks 'What makes a mensch?'

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A new documentary film asks 'What makes a mensch?' photo 1

Most of us  go through life trying to act like a mensch -- but what does that really mean? Jewish filmmaker Tiffany Shlain wants to know.

This summer, she's putting a call out to people all over the world to grab their phones and upload a short video answering "What's your definition of a mensch?" She plans to weave some of the responses as footage in her upcoming short film documentary called The Making of a Mensch, which Shlain is currently producing with her film studio Let It Ripple.

The film will premiere on Sept. 18 -- "Character Day 2015," -- which lands in the middle of the High Holiday season, a natural time of reflection. Rabbis and Jewish educators will incorporate the film as part of their High Holiday curriculum. Shlain, based in San Francisco, hopes to spark a conversation, and to engage 3,000 schools, synagogues, JCCs, camps, and others institutions through the project. So far, the US State Department, Foundation for Jewish Camp, the JCC Association, BBYO, RAVSAK, The Covenant Foundation, National Association of Independent Schools, the San Francisco Unified School District, the Center on Media and Child Health, have partnered on the project.

In a hyperactive, hyper-tech world, Shlain says, people are hungrier than ever to find meaning in their lives. "Everyone is searching for guides to give them tools to live a meaningful, successful, and purposeful life in a 24/7 world," she said. "Things are happening so much more quickly with all this technology, and we're making so many more choices at every turn so having a strong inner fortitude is important."

A new documentary film asks 'What makes a mensch?' photo 2

Tiffany Shain

One of the goals Shlain has for the film is to reclaim the word "mensch" for women. "I want the word to apply to women too because a lot of people use the word only for a man," she said. "In Yiddish, the word is for men and women."

The idea for the latest movie emerged after the success of Shlain's previous film short, last year, called The Science of Character, examining the neuroscience and social science that proves that we can shape who we are and who we want to be.

Jewish educators, like Rabbi Avi Orlow, loved the movie so much that they approached Shlain to make a second film about character development, this time told through the lens of Mussar. A collection of ancient Jewish ethical teachings, Mussar guides Jews to live a more meaningful and purposeful life through certain practices and meditations, and is currently experiencing a revival in the modern world.

Orlow, the founder of the Mussar Institute and Foundation for Jewish Camp's director of Jewish education, teamed up with Shlain on the film after hearing her speak at a conference. "I couldn't help but notice that her film The Science of Character unknowingly mirrored much of the teachings of the Mussar movement," he said. "One of the strengths of an…environment like camp is the opportunity to engage in meaningful character development. Making mensches is what we do. How wonderful…to take a project that has already struck a chord with Jewish camp professionals and put it in the context of ancient Jewish teachings that are still incredibly relevant to us today."

Shlain has created more than two dozen films -- mostly short films blending animation, images, and video input from the public to explore topics in a hip, relevant way. She tends to take on subjects from a neuroscience and social science angle.

The filmmaker dates her interest in the brain back to the fourth grade. It was then that her dad, a brain surgeon, brought a human brain in formaldehyde to her class for show and tell. That same year, her mom went back to school to study psychology -- and would use her daughter as a guinea pig for her homework. Ever since then, Shlain has wanted to make films about matters of the brain.

Named by Newsweek as "one of the women shaping the 21st century," and the founder of the Webby Awards, Shlain created the 2005 documentary short film called The Tribe chronicling the history of the Jewish people -- through the Barbie doll. The film exploded on the Jewish circuit.

With her new film, she's tackling the crux of who we are and who we want to become. "We are all trying to figure out how to be a better person -- a better mother, wife, contributor to the world and our community," she said. "The film [gives] haimisch tools to do that."

To learn more about the The Making of a Mensch and Character Day 2015, to sign up your organization to host a screening of the film, or to submit your own video message about what makes a mensch -- you might make it into the film! -- visit here.

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