Clean Speech St. Louis targets power of hurtful words

Screen capture from the Clean Speech St. Louis website, clean

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

The Jewish value of Shmirat Halashon has ancient origins, but it’s never been more relatable than in the age of social media. It means “guarding one’s tongue” and essentially is a reminder that words matter. Whether it’s gossip, a snarky comment posted to someone’s Instagram or taking a stranger to task for not wearing a face mask indoors, the things we say have an impact.

Thirty-eight local Jewish organizations are working to create kinder and less hurtful communications. The effort is called Clean Speech St. Louis. It will begin March 1 and provide online tools to educate, inform and raise awareness about the power of words, gossip and slander.

Participants will get a short online video lesson and action item from a local community leader about mindful speech. The goal is to encourage people to choose their words wisely. Ideally, this will lead to avoiding gossip, minimizing arguments with loved ones and curbing rude comments on social media.

Clean Speech is not about dirty or foul language, said Rabbi Yosef David, executive director of Aish St. Louis, one of the partnering organizations.

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“It’s about harmful and hurtful language,” David said. “We live in a world today where, unfortunately, words are so divisive and so harmful.”

The Clean Speech initiative was started in 2019 by Rabbi Raphael Leban, managing director of The Jewish Experience in Colorado, after he witnessed families and communities torn apart by angry words. The Colorado Clean Speech program made a positive impact, according to a survey by the organization gauging its effectiveness. It showed 72% of participants said the campaign changed the way they speak. 

When the St. Louis campaign concludes, organizers plan to get feedback from participants.

Rabbi Yosef David

Rabbi David offered an example of how Clean Speech St. Louis tools can help in an everyday situation, such as a coworker whose workspace is disorganized and whose politics run afoul of colleagues.

“Instead of saying, ‘Yes, he is a slob! His desk is always a mess and he can’t find anything,’ or ‘His politics are so loony, no wonder he has no friends,’ our Clean Speech campaign urges participants to pause and think before speaking,” David said. “To think, ‘Would I want someone to say that about me? Is there any constructive purpose to this comment?’ ”

Another potential conversational landmine is COVID, especially  regarding face masks and vaccinations. Again, Clean Speech can help provide guidance on staying out of awkward situations.

“There has definitely been a terrible slide into gossip, slander, and demeaning and hurtful speech due to some of the solutions and rhetoric surrounding COVID,” David said. “Discussions around mandates, masks and vaccinations have been destructive and damaging to relationships.

“When people assume the worst in others and their judgment, it makes it impossible to communicate peacefully and constructively. Clean Speech is about learning how to have constructive, mindful conversations even about tough, controversial topics without hurting others through gossip and slander.”

The initiative will be broken down into four thematic weeks, beginning with an introduction to help participants recognize how much the words they choose affect themselves and others. Next comes lashon hara, or potentially harmful gossip. The third week will focus on being a good listener. The final week delves into speaking up to protect another person’s reputation.

The Clean Speech campaign is presented by Jewish organizations in St. Louis, but David said it is both relevant and applicable to members of any faith, and anyone can sign up.

“The message of clean speech and of being mindful of one’s words goes far beyond any religious affiliations,” he said. “One of the most powerful tools to stop oneself from negative speech is to ask, ‘Would I want this said about me?’ ”

For more information on Clean Speech St. Louis, email [email protected] or go to

Whoopi’s gaffe is an example thoughtless speech, rabbi says

Actress Whoopi Goldberg recently made news on “The View,” the TV show she co-hosts, when she said, “The Holocaust isn’t about race.”

Those words irked many members of the Jewish community,  said Rabbi Yosef David, executive director of Aish St. Louis. Goldberg may have made her comments without malice, but some subjects can be live wires. Would she have benefited from the tools provided in the Clean Speech St. Louis initiative? Definitely, David said.

“Whoopi Goldberg’s ill-informed comments struck a nerve with many Jewish people,” David said. “We are well aware of the efforts of antisemites throughout our history who have used words to marginalize, separate and then dehumanize and  demonize the Jewish people so that they could excuse their behavior and get others to join their diabolical plans. If Whoopi paused and thought about the power and danger of using words that hurt others, I would hope she would not have said them.

“If she recognized that words have the power to minimize the Holocaust and make it into something that seems less than it was, or that could create an environment and attitude where Jew hatred is made more tolerable, I would hope she would have chosen her words more carefully.

“Whoopi Goldberg’s thoughtless and inappropriate comments bring home how important and timely the Clean Speech St. Louis initiative is. Today, when hurtful, thoughtless words of slander, negativity and gossip are so easily and quickly disseminated, there is no better time to focus on creating a society in which clean speech is on everyone’s mind.”

— Bill Motchan