Tiffany Shlain

Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is working on “The Making of a Mensch.” 

Photo courtesy of Let It Ripple

What’s your definition of a mensch?

This question is the basis for a new film by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. It’s not a rhetorical question – her nonprofit studio Let It Ripple has issued a call to people across the world to answer this question for her upcoming film “The Making of a Mensch.”

She is requesting that people record their answer on their phone – holding the “camera horizontal so it looks good,” Shlain advises – and submit their video on letitripple.org/mensch_submit.

The film, which will delve “deeply into ideas about menschness and the history of it in the Jewish tradition,” is scheduled to debut Sept. 18, on the second annual Character Day – a global day to engage Jewish and secular communities around the world in different perspectives and teachings surrounding character development.

During the inaugural Character Day last year, Shlain premiered “The Science of Character,” a film about the social science and the neuroscience of character development.

More than 1,500 schools, nonprofits and government entities screened the film last year, including the U.S. State Department, which showed the film in Washington, D.C., and at embassies around the world, according to a release. In total, people tapped in from over 120 countries and 3,000 cities, and the film was translated into 14 different languages.

“Everyone was so excited to talk about character and have this fun format to engage in these deeper issues,” Shlain says.

After the global screening, Shlain was contacted by Jewish educators who introduced her to Mussar, which is Jewish wisdom that deals with character development. They asked if she would create a Jewish version of “The Science of Character,” so the new film and accompanying discussion kit takes the science of the first film and explores it through the lens of the ancient Jewish teachings of Mussar, according to letitripple.org. “The film and discussion materials are a wonderful opportunity to revitalize these teachings around character development that date back to the 10th century, and re-engage us all in how these Jewish tools are applicable to our 21st-century lives.”

Character Day is intentionally scheduled between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shlain says, because that is “a time of thinking about who we are and who we want to be.”

“The Making of a Mensch” is one of three films featured on Character Day. The other ones are last year’s “The Science of Character” and the new “The Adaptable Mind,” which looks at the skills that are needed to flourish in the 21st-century.

“All of our films hope to inspire conversation about important issues of our times,” Shlain says.

In San Francisco, where the studio is located, the Jewish Community Center will host a lecture series based on the films and some rabbis have told Shlain that they plan to incorporate the topic into their High Holiday sermons. Organizations, such as schools and synagogues, can participate in Character Day however they decide, she says; they can show one or all of the films and there are free discussion materials available for every age group. “You have the choice of what you want it to be,” she says. There will also be a Google Hangout available over a 24-hour period, during which experts will interview each other in a global conversation.

Printed materials include posters that illustrate character strengths and decks of conversation cards. There is a limited amount of these materials, so Shlain encourages people to sign up sooner rather than later. There will also be many online materials available. Examples of last year’s materials include an exploration of the 24 character strengths, with curated lists of media to help develop these character strengths; discussion guides; lesson plans and writing prompts for elementary school, middle school and high school students; and other online resources.

Shlain is the founder of the Webby Awards and has received more than 65 awards and distinctions for her films and work, which includes “The Tribe,” an 18-minute documentary about the history of the Jewish people and the Barbie doll, and her Emmy-nominated AOL Originals series, “The Future Starts Here.” In this series, she explores her family’s Technology Shabbats, during which she and her husband and children unplug from technology from Friday night to Saturday evening, as well as many other topics.

“The conversation around Mussar and character are so ripe right now, while we simultaneously need new ways of reviving these Jewish teachings,” says Harlene Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, one of the funders behind the project, in a release. “This is what Tiffany Shlain does best: take important and complicated subjects, and present them in ways that excite people of all ages. It’s the perfect message at the perfect time, with the right messenger. The visual medium; the supplemental learning materials; the way it all comes together on one big day – it’s all very forward-thinking for the world of Jewish education. We’re excited that Let it Ripple’s creative spirit is the driving force behind this, building towards Character Day 2015.”

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