Picture this: a really mean kid.
A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.
In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.
In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?
Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs. The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.
When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?
Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members. We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.
Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.
Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news. This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.
This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.
If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.
Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?
Sukkot offers some incredible starting points for discussion. The Sukkot holiday begins tonight and lasts for a week. Among other things, core to Sukkot is the sukkah itself: something that provides shelter, but is temporary.
One topic the ISJL’s curriculum focuses on is the concept of Ushpizin. This is the custom of inviting our ancestors into our Sukkah. While the traditional Ushpizin guests are biblical characters, it sets a precedent for inviting people who add value to our life into our personal dwelling, to allow them to help shape it and shape us.
This got me thinking. There are so many people who have been involved in social action and who have led various social justice campaigns, so… as someone committed to social justice, who would I want to invite into my temporary dwelling to sit and have some coffee and cake with and learn.Which also made me wonder – maybe even more importantly than the question of who would I invite in, is the question what would we talk about while we were in there?
I started Googling Sukkot and Jewish social activists, and what I came across is the group Jewish Women Watching and their 2007 Sukkot campaign, “Treyfing Sukkot.” I’d be curious to hear what you think. Jewish Women Watching had an interesting approach to Sukkot: “Sukkot is a time when we step outside of our comfort zones. We need to go beyond ʻsafe causesʼ and challenge the status quo.”
The campaign included sukkah decorations that highlighted causes that were, at the time, “kosher,” i.e. “safe causes”; while other decorations listed causes that were “treyf” – more polarizing, less “safe.” These decorations presented a real challenge to the Jewish community and Jewish individuals. From a quick glance at their website, it doesn’t look as though Jewish Women Watching is still an active group. However, one line quoted in the press release that announced this campaign stood out to me.
“The sukkah is a fragile dwelling, and for it to be kosher, it must be open.”
If our sukkah is truly open, who would we invite in? And would we only explore the safe, kosher questions or the challenging, treyf ones?
Who would you add to the Ushpizin guest list? What might you want to talk with them about?
Every summer, the ISJL office is privileged to be one of the stops on the journey of teens participating in Operation Understanding.
Operation Understanding, which has sites in Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, D.C., brings together African American and Jewish youth, who spend time learning together first in their own communities, then traveling to visit civil rights sites. They learn about each other’s cultures and unique legacies, and also find common ground in their shared values and experiences.
As the students who participate in OU know all too well, while as a society we’ve made tremendous strides there is still so much work to be done. Working together, across racial, religious, and other potential “divides” that can instead become uniting, we can move forward. The painful realization that divisions still exist and the hopeful knowledge that unity is possible inspired this video, put together by OU-D.C. students.
They shared it with us when they visited the ISJL office, and we’re honored to share the #TrayvOnward video here:
You can also keep up with the Operation Understanding Students on their blog, which shares the lessons and adventures of their journey.