Becoming a Mentsh

By Steve Farbman

This write-up is adapted with the author’s permission from his Nov. 12 letter to Whitney Hillman and from his article, “Courageous High School Student Defies School Authorities and Saves a Chicken,” published in the Jewish Vegetarians of North America Newsletter, December 9, 2010. The entire article, including samples of Farbman’s students’ letters to Whitney Hillman about her chicken heist, and Whitney’s reply, is posted on

I teach a course entitled “Becoming a Mentsh” to seventh graders at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia. A Mentsh is a person of integrity and honor, one who is responsible, caring, and compassionate – a person who knows the right thing to do and does it. While we should respect our teachers, we are taught to stand up to them if they tell us to do something wrong. Jewish tradition instructs us that doing what is right comes first. At the end of October, I deviated from the course curriculum to highlight recent events at Concordia High School, in Kansas, after being alerted by United Poultry Concerns about the “broiler project” and Whitney Hillman’s refusal to slaughter her chicken, Chicklett, or let others do the dastardly deed.

I knew right away I had a real-life and timely example of a Mentsh, which would be so much more instructive than reading from a book. I would let my students decide for themselves whether Whitney exhibited Mentsh-like qualities in saving Chicklett. I devoted two lessons to the events at Concordia, both of which engendered lively conversation, ending with letters written by my students to Whitney explaining why she either is or is not a Mentsh. The letters were written in class and overwhelmingly supported Whitney. Here is one example:

“I like how you went out of your way to save the chicken’s life. I liked how you put away school rules and replaced them with your rules, not killing innocent animals. The way you saved the chicken’s life really spoke to me. You were really brave how you disagreed with the teacher. I am really happy for you and the chicken for what you did. I hope that your deed will change your life and other people’s lives. Thank you. Sam”