Synagogues and Jewish organizations throughout the MetroWest community launched an initiative called Clean Speech NJ on May 1.
The 30-day education and awareness campaign is designed to “inspire the whole community to speak more mindfully and positively,” Alexandra Feingold said. Ms. Feingold is the project manager for Clean Speech at Aish, a global organization that offers educational and religious programming for Jews of all backgrounds.
Aish is partnering with more than 25 local synagogues, schools and organizations on this initiative. The schools include the Golda Och Academy in West Orange and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. The synagogues — from a range of denominations — and other institutions are in Basking Ridge, Caldwell, Franklin, Hopatcong, Livingston, Millburn, Morris Plains, Morristown, Randolph, Rockaway, South Orange, Succasunna, Watchung and West Orange.
Each of them is sharing the initiative with its constituency. “It’s about uniting the community,” Ms. Feingold said. “It’s about uniting people from all different backgrounds.”
The 30-day program consists of daily 3-minute videos, each imparting Jewish wisdom on mindful speech, according to Aish. Each video also includes a practical tool or challenge that viewers can use to help them speak more mindfully.
Videos explore common situations that might involve negative speech about a person or group of people. One of the first videos focuses on idle gossip among friends; two other videos address situations where there may be a reason to relay negative information about someone — specifically in a workplace when a co-worker is not performing well, and in a dating context when a friend is considering dating someone — and explore under what circumstances it actually would be helpful to relay that negative information.
“It’s 30 days devoted to paying attention to how we speak,” Ms. Feingold said. “And it’s 30 days when people throughout the community will all be receiving the same content.”
Before the May 1 launch date, she coordinated in-person educational programming at GOA and Kushner, and students signed up to participate.
The Clean Speech curriculum was developed in 2019 by Rabbi Raphael Leban. He’s the managing director of the Denver-based Jewish Experience, which provides “education, inspiration, and community connection for thousands of families across the spectrum of Jews in Colorado,” according to its website. The idea is to “unite Jewish communities across North America in improving the dynamics of human relationships through Jewish mindful speech.”
The Jewish Experience has partnered with many organizations over the last four years to bring Clean Speech to cities throughout the United States, including Denver, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. Aish partnered with the Jewish Experience for the first time last fall, when it brought the program to Manhattan.
Rabbi Elliot Mathias, Aish’s chief operating officer for global content, lives in Livingston with his family, so he introduced the program to the MetroWest community. “What’s really nice about the campaign is that it’s very grassroots focused,” he said. “Twenty-five local synagogues, schools, and organizations are all partnering, and we’re working with them to share the program with their communities.”
The daily videos are tailored to the community. While the program curriculum and the content of the videos is consistent in different locations, the series of videos used in each geographic area is produced by that community’s sponsoring organizations, and each video features a member of the local community. “For example, one video might feature a parent in one of the participating schools; another, a lay leader in one of the participating synagogues, and a third, middle schoolers in another of the participating schools,” Ms. Feingold said. “So viewers will likely recognize their neighbors in the videos.”
For the program now running in the MetroWest catchment area, Aish created the first video. Congregation Or Hadash, a Conservative synagogue in Rockaway, made the second, and Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Livingston, did the third.
“The campaign is really focused on people learning about the power of speech, about how to elevate the way we speak to each other,” Rabbi Mathias said. “What we say, and how we say it, defines who we are. Angry, hurtful words define an angry, hurtful person. Kind, considerate words define a kind and considerate person. And Judaism teaches that the words we choose determine how we experience life. So the campaign is really an opportunity to
“The program is about uplifting life in general, about building relationships, based on universal principles that we take out of Judaism. It’s about raising awareness of how speaking negatively about, or to, people, impacts others, how it impacts our relationships, and how it impacts us as people.”
Rabbi Mathias explained that this program is important now because “we’re in a time when people disagree, even within the Jewish community, whether it’s about Jewish issues, whether it’s about political issues, and it just seems that there is a real challenge for people to be able to speak constructively to each other.” One of the program’s goals is to help people “really see the power of speech and understand that we can disagree with each other, but we can still talk to each other, we can still communicate in a constructive and positive way.”
He hopes that another takeaway will be that Jewish wisdom can be relevant to our everyday lives. “Today, a lot of people are not sure how Judaism is practical,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s also just become part of society that people have trouble speaking to each other, but this is an area in which Jewish wisdom can really help our society, can help our community, and can help us as individuals. Judaism has real wisdom to help us elevate the way that we speak.”
A third goal is to bring the community together, Rabbi Mathias continued. He believes the initiative will allow people to see that they are part of something “that’s not just my temple, or not just my organization, but that the community in general is working on doing something together.” And he thinks that it can “really unify so many parts of the community that maybe are not working together in other areas, and that could be very powerful as well.
“I really believe that an important part of the campaign is that it’s something that’s not just one organization or one denomination, it’s really the community coming together.”
Feedback has already started coming in, and “we’re hearing that people are finding the videos super meaningful,” Rabbi Mathias said. “I got an email from a teacher in New Jersey who said she’s already implementing the program into her classroom. People are saying that they’re just finding it very practical and meaningful — that they can sort of incorporate it into their daily lives.”
One thing that Ms. Feingold likes about the daily videos is that they are practical and explore everyday situations. “They show how throughout your daily life, whether it’s at your job, with your friends, in dating, you’re constantly speaking in ways that are hurting your relationships with other people in ways you may not have realized,” she said. “Even negative self-talk can be harmful in ways that you didn’t realize. The videos help people understand how they can make changes in very practical ways that are really applicable to everybody.”
She also appreciates the videos being relatable and modern. “They talk about what’s considered negative speech,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t really have clarity on this and think, ‘I’m not a liar, I’m not mean,’ but negative speech doesn’t mean you have negative intentions or are a bad person — it just means maybe you don’t recognize the impact of every single word that you say.
“The goal is to improve the way we speak to one another, how we relate to one another through speech, and to improve our relationships.”
The campaign also “shows how Judaism can bring people closer together rather than further apart,” Ms. Feingold said. “If they have different political views, or if they have different religious beliefs, or if they practice Judaism differently, or they’re not Jewish, or if they have different socioeconomic beliefs, it doesn’t matter. We still can speak kindly to one another while having different opinions.
“It’s taking Jewish ideas and giving you practical tools to improve your relationships and your life.”
The program is for “people who want to improve their lives and their relationships and for people who want to grow spiritually or just to work on self-improvement,” she concluded. ”
To join the campaign, go to cleanspeech.com/nj.