Eleven months ago, the Colorado Jewish community joined together in an unprecedented effort to improve itself. In the years, months and weeks leading up to November, 2019, incivility and political animus in the US were rampant. Friends or families were being torn apart by negative rhetoric, labeling and name calling.
The Jewish community was not immune.
This was distressing to Rabbi Raphael Leban, managing director of The Jewish Experience. He was motivated to create Clean Speech Colorado, a month-long campaign that educated some 10,000 people from all corners of the Colorado Jewish community about the basic Jewish proscription of lashon hara, negative speech — saying hurtful things about a person when that person is not present.
Leban and his team recruited 59 Denver and Boulder Jewish organizations, representing all types of religious observance, interests and age groups, to involve their members in “one month of mindful speech for the betterment of mankind.”
Every day during November, thousands of community members found in their inboxes an email containing a short video with a message by a different community leader discussing a different aspect of mindful speech.
These daily lessons were augmented by a curriculum in day schools, religious schools and adult education settings, a booklet with the daily lessons, plus several public lectures by well-known speakers on the subject.
Rabbi Leban is proud of the statistics: 72% of people polled said the campaign changed the way they speak, and more than 90% said they would participate in such a campaign again. In November, 2020, they will be able to do just that.
Clean Speech Colorado Volume 2 will tackle another aspect of mindful speech, ona’at devarim, described by Rabbi Leban as “avoiding painful, embarrassing, harmful speech to the person you’re speaking with directly.”
This year 2020 is marked by “the pandemic, significant social unrest and heated political campaigning, all of which have, unfortunately, not eased tensions across the community, but have exacerbated the same issues that made Clean Speech Colorado of some importance last year,” Leban said.
According to Rabbi Leban, this November’s initiative is “not a repeat of last year.
The biggest difference this year will be the subject matter. Rabbi Leban says that speaking respectfully to another person is one of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments in the Torah.
“There’s a verse in the Torah, in the book of Numbers that states the commandment to refrain from speaking to someone in a way that causes them anguish or pain or embarrassment or fear — you could summarize it as any kind of discomfort. It’s also been codified in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law.”
Also new this year will be “CSC TV,” a weekly talk show, “very much like the ‘Tonight Show’ with a host and special guests from around the world with lots of interesting and cute segments highlighting and bringing attention to the subject in a very, very enjoyable way.”
The show will be streamed weekly with Adrienne Gold, a former fashion and television personality, who is now a Jewish educator, as the host.
Guests already lined up include US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and author and former Obama Administration speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz.
“Clean speech ambassadors” are volunteers who care about the issue and want to help spread the impact of the campaign. Leban likens them to a “cell phone tower.” Those interested in becoming ambassadors may contact Leban through the website, cleanspeechcolorado.org.
The daily email video messages will appear again this year, but will feature community lay leaders as contrasted to the Jewish community professionals who delivered the messages last year. There will also be a booklet with daily lessons to the Jewish community at-large.
Last year, other Jewish communities around the country caught word of Clean Speech Colorado. Rabbi Leban and his colleagues are in discussions with other communities to run their own campaigns about mindful speech.
Rabbi Leban says that collective attention to a mitzvah “an extremely time-honored way for a community to address a difficult moment in Jewish history by rallying together and collaborating, committing ourselves to spiritual growth.”