Putting in a good word

  Clean Speech project brings mindful language to Illinois in November 

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Rabbi Zev Kahn with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — including Michal Dymarasky (far right).

If there's one thing Americans can agree on, it's that we don't agree on much. But we do agree that our disagreements have become more divisive, dismissive, and demeaning in recent years. 

In an effort to promote more mindful and positive language, an initiative called Clean Speech Illinois is rolling out a new series of educational videos. "The idea is to develop habits of mindful speech," said Rabbi Zev Kahn, director of Clean Speech Illinois. "This isn't about telling you what to say but thinking about what you say."  

The project is a community-wide education and awareness campaign to unite people in the practice of Jewish mindful speech-and, in the process, build a more positive, respectful, and peaceful world. Despite its name, Kahn clarifies, Clean Speech does not target only "dirty," foul language, nor is it about censorship. Rather, "clean speech" centers around promoting positive speech-especially during conflict. 

It all came about in 2016 during a time of extreme division in America. Kahn--who runs the Jewish Education Team, or JET, a program aimed at inspiring Jewish college students and young professionals to develop a stronger connection to Jewish life--was noticing conversations becoming more divisive.  

After observing his daughter reading  Positive Word Power for Teens- -a Jewish guide to positive speech for teens by Chana Nestlebaum--he was inspired to have JET enact a similar message on college campuses. 

Kahn said he was sensitized to the power of speech when learning the Jewish concept of  Lashon Hara , literally "evil language," which he translates as "harmful speech."

Just before the pandemic, Kahn worked with college students on the Positive Speech Project, an effort to promote civility in conversations that preceded the Clean Speech initiative. "If the Cubs could win the Series," he said, "this could happen, too."  

Meanwhile, Denver's Rabbi Raphael Leban, an educator for 20 years, said he, like Kahn, was sensing profound polarization and an absence of civility. His solution, in 2018, was to "bring community attention, and a Jewish approach, to the issue." Leban found an interest across the spectrum of Jewish organizations, and soon had 60 groups on board. 

The result--Clean Speech--is a month-long curriculum, with one concise lesson each day in written and video format, each steeped in a Jewish source: The Talmud teaches that gossip hurts three people--the speaker, the subject, and the listener; some 60 percent of the Yom Kippur  Ahl Chayt  confessions relate to sins of speech.

Operating in six states, Clean Speech has been embraced by Jews of every-and no-denomination, as well as non-Jews. "Its principals are universal," Leban said, pointing to an Illinois Christian school that adapted it, and a Colorado pastor who ran the session with his congregation. 

Clean Speech Colorado quickly reached 50,000 participants. It then found a ready partner in Kahn--Leban's former classmate at a Jerusalem yeshiva--to take Clean Speech back to Illinois. 

The effort aims to promote mindful speech "in real life" and online. "If we can make one person reconsider posting something mean on social media, it will have been worth it," Kahn said. 

Michal Dymarsky participated in the initiative as a student at U of I. Even months after she finished the program, she reports that she is still speaking mindfully. "Avoiding negative language influences everyday life," she recounted. She applies the lessons, she says, even when alone: "Why talk myself down?" 

Dymarsky still brainstorms with Kahn about Clean Speech, while pursuing graduate work in physical therapy. "It works hand in hand with PT," she said. "I'm a cheerleader for my patients! I educate them--how they speak about their pain affects it. But Clean Speech can be applied to any profession." 

Clean Speech is broadening its reach to younger students, too. Rabbi Yosef Cohen, an eighth- grade teacher at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, is helping to bring Clean Speech to Chicago-area Jewish day schools, an effort underwritten by Eric Rothner. Cohen said he is hoping to attract 5,000 students to the program. 

"Clean Speech is about being a good, kind person--finding the good in everyone, and saying something kind when you can," he said. "If we start this at a young age, maybe we can change the world." 

To learn more and participate in the 30-day lesson plan, visit cleanspeech.com/Illinois . Also, check out the pamphlet on Clean Speech Illinois in this issue of the magazine.  

Ambassador organizations for Clean Speech Illinois include JET, JCC Chicago, Associated Talmud Torahs, and Chicago Rabbinical Council.   

"The idea is to develop habits of mindful speech. This isn't about telling you what to say but thinking about what you say. "


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