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?
Now that the Jewish fall holidays have been celebrated, I have had some time to reflect on some of the meaningful moments of late summer and early autumn. This musing was inspired in part by a coworker, who sent me a screenshot of our Facebook page, showing the interesting juxtaposition of a picture of me and my fellow clergy speaking in Jackson… with a picture of another preacher and another rabbi preparing to speak to a crowd 50 years ago.
August marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. All around the United States, the diverse people that continually make this nation so great gathered to celebrate and remember that momentous day through song and prayer, through words and fellowship. I was part of the celebration here in Jackson. As I stood on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol, beside my friend and fellow Mississippi clergyman Bishop Ronnie Crudup, to honor the steps that had been made and those still remaining in the march towards true equality, I pondered that day from 50 years ago.
What would it have felt like to stand before the gathered assembly of 250,000? What exchanges may have taken place between those who waited to speak? Did Dr. Rabbi Yoachim Prinz say anything to Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as Prinz warmed up the crowd to hear King’s dream?
Given the collective spirit of God’s will present that day, they must have. For it was that same spirit that brought me and Bishop Crudup together this summer.
“I remember the original March,” Bishop Crudup shared. “I was seven and my mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Aren’t you frustrated then that – as a society – we haven’t covered much ground?” I asked. “After all, right here in Mississippi, we’re still miles away from reaching a state in which every citizen – regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual orientation – has equal access to the same opportunities.”
Bishop Crudup grew reflectively silent. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “You may not see it. But, from the vantage point of my years, I do. You and I can stand together, dine together, work together. So, the work of changing laws is over; what remains is the challenge of changing hearts and minds.”
I nodded, knowing that this task was going to be as – if not more – difficult than the first task. But those who marched on Washington are passing us the baton. If we wish to move our society forward we can no longer simply march on Washington; we must also march over to our neighbors, and continue these important conversations.
August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech that immediately preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago was delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
As Rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Prinz was expelled from Nazi Germany. Since this speech, which you can read in its entirety here, will receive less attention I wanted to spread Rabbi Prinz’s message on that day. The entire address is inspiring, but this line, in particular, stands out for me:
“The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together.”
Those who know me will not be surprised by my choice to discuss this quote.
It is a quote that articulates the importance of relationship building, and cooperation. This idea is repeated in some of my prior blog posts, after all: real social change is most often the result of the efforts of many who work in partnership. The members of different churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship may have different traditions or political perspectives, but there are almost always overlapping hopes, particularly for their children. Across religious differences, we want our youth to have access to a good education, to be healthy, to be safe, to have the opportunity to live peacefully and pursue their lives and passions. We can make assumptions based on these beliefs, and hope together – or even pray together.
But to work together, we can’t just make broad assumptions (even good, positive ones!) about our hopes and goals. To truly cooperate, we need to have a good understanding of what exactly is driving all of the parties involved. It is the only way to be certain that we are all, in fact, aiming for the same ultimate outcome. On a truly basic level, to work together we have to know each other. We have to know our neighbors’ names, and have their contact information, and not just talk about being a community – but do the work it takes to become a community.
Occasionally, I’ll hear from a synagogue that is skeptical about working with local churches. This is often fueled by a fear that the church members will try to proselytize. I wonder what Rabbi Prinz would say? I suggest that both congregations get together, and discuss what each group needs to feel respected and accepted. It is important to give cooperation a chance. There is too much work that has to get done. We cannot afford to only work with people who think like us. We are all better off when we work together.
May this line serve as a source of inspiration for all of us to commit to working with one another. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided a directive and a vision – and Rabbi Joachim Prinz reminded us of the work that goes into pushing that vision forward. 50 years after these great leaders, and their peers, rallied a crowd of thousands, we must hear the call today. We must be united by a shared dream, then roll up our sleeves and share in the work.
Photo credit: New Jersey Jewish Historical Society