By Melissa Frey, director of the URJ’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY, the associate director of NFTY, and the director of NFTY Convention 2013.
This story appeared in the March 16, 2012 edition of Ten Minutes of Torah.
Bully, the movie, which is to open on March 30, is a stark portrayal of bullying that crosses ethnic, socio-economic, and gender lines. It is a documentary that followed the lives of several pre-teens and teens who had been victims of bullying from 2009-2010. There has been interesting dialogue relative to the movie’s age-appropriate rating. There is controversy because of strong language and parts of the storyline focusing on teen suicide. While an R rating would preclude the majority of the target audience from seeing the film, ideally we would want adults to see this movie with their pre-teens and teens. The movie’s website has even provided a guide to help adults unpack the film with their teens.
Perhaps we should be less concerned with the movie’s rating relative to our young people. Bully is a documentary. What this film portrays is what many of our young people see in their schools every day. No one is rating the real live bullying happening in classrooms, on buses, and in schoolyards, that our teens might incite, observe, or admonish. It’s not our teens who will find this movie so shocking, because they see this kind of behavior, unrated and uncensored. Rather, it’s the adults who will likely be stunned by the content of this film, which will give an unprecedented snapshot into the hallways of our high schools.
Jewish tradition offers us many teachings about how to frame, from an ethics and values perspective, the various roles our teens might take on relative to bullying. The roles of the bullied, the bully, and the bystander, can be extrapolated from our collective stories about Goliath, Antiochus, Lilith, Joseph’s brothers, Korach, Amalek, the people of Sodom, and Jezebel. Conversely, we can draw upon our sacred texts to remind us that we are each created in the image of God, that there is infinite value to human life, and that repairing our world starts with repairing ourselves. So how do we, as adults who care deeply about the future of our movement because of our commitment to our youth, work to best understand the real issues relative to bullying? Maybe a starting place is simply naming it.
One of the most valuable lessons we have learned from the Campaign for Youth Engagement is the need for authentic relationship building. And our success in many ways will be predicated on emulating relationship building in all aspects of our goals. It is also the first step towards breaking down bullying. When young people are given the opportunity to foster real relationships with one another, they are more likely to engender positive relationships, and stand up and speak out about injustices. We need to create opportunities to do good by nurturing empathy, teaching friendship skills, and engaging in positive, energizing, and constructive activities.
Above all, we must foster circles of caring, which teach children they are responsible for their actions, that builds confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and teaches them how to evaluate and reason on their own. We can do this by fostering will and grace. Not merely a 90s sitcom, these concepts, taken from the “I-Thou” treatise by twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, help to define the powerful value of giving (will) and receiving (grace) in our relationships. And through will and grace, we can name ourselves and our actions to an even higher level.
We, as Jews, are part of a remarkable history. The Baal Shem Tov says that we each carry three names – the one we are given, the one we choose, and the one we inherit from God. Collectively, we go by many names – People of the Book, The Tribe, Hebrews, the Children of Israel. A modern Midrash says that by extension, we are all the children of Israel, because Israel, in Hebrew, is an acronym for the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The existence of Yisrael is predicated on our forefathers and mothers, and their legacy of life and values to the Jewish people.
If, by extension, in Ashkenizic Jewish tradition, we are named for people who are no longer living, it could be extrapolated back as far as the matriarchs and patriarchs that we are all truly Children of Israel. That when we sign our name, share our name, it doesn’t simply represent us, it represents the generations of people for whom we have been named, and the values of those people who our parents felt so compelled to name us for. The authentic act of naming – the individual, the relationships, the behaviors, and the communities – is a resonant starting place to building vibrant relationships that serve as the foundation to respect, tolerance, and open-mindedness.
By understanding the value of our name, we take the first step in embracing the infinite worth of every human being. We must foster a culture where value and respect are the norm, as these behaviors lead to a heightened sense of self-worth and purpose. At its very core, bullying is not about power, it’s about contempt. Bullying is based on a fundamental sense of entitlement, intolerance towards differences, and takes a liberty to exclude. And perhaps most profound, bullying is a learned behavior, bullies are taught to bully. Let’s rally around our young people to ensure that we’re teaching and modeling for them how to live a life congruent with our Reform Jewish values. Find a teen you care about deeply, go and see Bully, and open a meaningful dialogue towards change to help ensure our vibrant, holy, healthy future.
The documentary Bully is being endorsed by the Coalition of Jewish Teens (CJT) whose founding member organizations are BBYO, NFTY, and Young Judea. Additional resources about our Jewish response to bullying can be found in the Living NFTY initiatives.