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Bullying is a community crisis, says chief rabbi

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Bullying has become a crisis in our community, whether it occurs through exclusion, nastiness, or manipulation, in person or online, say experts. The problem was highlighted by a visibly emotional Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein last week, who called for the community to acknowledge it and find a resolution.

“Imagine being a teenage girl in a Jewish high school trying to find your place in that world. You battle a bit socially as you’re not a run-of-the-mill, fit-in kind of girl. You’re bullied, not outright, but subtly with gestures and tones and mocking words and actions. Time spent with others on a school project goes well, and hope and light appears as maybe someone will be nice at school, only for it to be dashed by ignorance and the words, ‘I was dared to be nice to you’.”

Quoting this heart-wrenching social media post written by an anonymous mother, Goldstein said, “There’s a crisis out there in our community, and so many children and teenagers are in pain. I feel a sense of responsibility as chief rabbi to talk about this even though it’s uncomfortable and painful.”

Goldstein was spurred to action not only because of this post and the overwhelming response it generated, but because of multiple reports from parents and senior social workers who have indicated the growing severity and prevalence of bullying across the community.

He spoke at an Inter Jewish Day School Student Leadership Summit hosted at Sandton Sinai Primary School on 12 March. With teachers and student leaders in attendance, Goldstein thought it an apt forum to raise this issue, saying that the courage it takes for bystanders to stand up against bullying requires true leadership.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, the anonymous mother, whose child has subsequently changed schools, says she feels it was necessary for her story to be shared. “It seems to have opened up a can of worms, and will hopefully reach people. I don’t know if it will though because the culprits are supported by the parents who say, ‘It could never be my child.’”

Such a response can hamper schools’ efforts to resolve such incidents. “Keeping pupils safe is always a priority of the school, but we can’t do it without the support and partnership of the parents who need to work with us whether their children exhibit bullying behaviour or are the victims of it,” says Lisa Klotz, senior social worker at King David High School Linksfield. “It becomes an impossible situation when parents absolutely refuse to hear the role that their children may be playing.”

Social worker Tova Goldstein, who says that half of her practice is comprised of bullied teens, also advocates a collaborative approach to get results. “We have to work together, not against each other, with the same goal – the mental health and emotional development of both sides,” she says.

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler, the co-founder and director of Koleinu SA, says that in some instances, perpetrators witness bullying at home, but it’s a multifaceted area that cannot be attributed to one factor. Koleinu SA provides a helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish community, and has recently received multiple calls around bullying incidents.

“We need to be role models to our kids in terms of how we treat other people, how we treat ourselves, and how we treat those different to us,” says Rozanne Sack, also Koleinu SA’s co-founder and director. Hendler says we must be clear when defining incidents as bullying. “It’s not a one-off but rather an ongoing pattern of repeated acts of cruelty in whatever way they may manifest, whether it’s through exclusion, teasing, insulting, physical violence, and so on.”

Dealing with bullying is not about placing blame, says child protection and development specialist Luke Lamprecht, the head of advocacy at Women and Men Against Child Abuse. “It’s about asking how we as a community of care work together to put this child’s development back on track because they’re lacking a set of social skills.” The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has made children more unkind and less attuned to social cues.

Lamprecht takes a restorative approach, helping the child to take restorative steps for themselves and the person they’ve harmed. “All ruptures come with the opportunity to repair,” he says. “Their behaviour is telling us something, and our job is to listen and respond appropriately even if it may be a painful process.”

Sheri Hanson, a mental health co-ordinator at Hatzolah, also highlights the impact of COVID-19, especially regarding children’s ability to connect with one another. She says there has been a marked increase in calls about exclusion, bullying, and unkindness to the Hatzolah Connect anonymous teen chatline. “Kids aren’t seeing each other as other humans with feelings. There’s a need to excel and move forward at any cost.”

She also points to the increasingly prevalent role played by the digital realm. “Cyberbullying and exclusion are at a level that we’ve never seen before,” she says. “There’s no release from it because in the past, you’d have a bad day at school and then go home. Now you go home and watch it continue online.”

King David High School Victory Park counsellor Gita Lipschitz agrees. “In the stressful times we live in, there’s a marked increase in the number of incidents of relational and emotional bullying, with the vast majority playing out on the various social media platforms.”

Yet, she says, even if an incident takes place outside of school, there are ramifications for students during school hours. “A team effort between parents and schools giving the children the same message, educating for kindness, empathy, and caring is the most effective way of responding to all forms of bullying,” Lipschitz says.

When it comes to dealing with online bullying, Klotz says, having hard evidence can make the situation easier to deal with. “Pupils have been educated to take screenshots and keep voice notes of any bullying behaviour,” she says.

In consultation with an external professional, Yeshiva College is in the final stages of updating its existing bullying policy to encompass changes in the nature of bullying. “Exclusion of children and feelings of isolation are exacerbated by social media,” say Caryn Horowitz and Larry Hirschowitz, psychologists in the boys’ and girls’ high schools as well as Caryn Falkson, a social worker in the primary school.

This is especially true when events that certain kids aren’t invited to are posted on online platforms or when some are excluded from WhatsApp groups. “Kids say things on social media which they can never say face to face,” they point out.

The school collaborates with parents and children to curb bullying, and is focusing on preventative strategies that include workshops, guest speakers, and general school themes.

We cannot totally protect our children from being bullied, says (social worker) Goldstein. “What we can do is build them up, point them in the direction of their own inner strength, create a space for them to feel good about themselves, and build their self-esteem and resilience. They need to know that no matter what, we’re in their corner.”

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  1. Larry

    March 23, 2023 at 12:28 pm

    What a bloody laugh.
    We went to Rabbi Goldstein about 14 years ago when our kid was being bullied at kd linksfield.
    Half the problem is(was) the faculty.
    He did stuff all, as did the rest of the “helpful” community, so please, just stop the hypocrisy. Its sickening.

  2. Abe

    March 24, 2023 at 8:58 am

    The unfortunate aspect of this is that Rabbi Goldstein, for all that he makes the right noises around bullying, does not appear to truly care about this. This is evident from the fact that despite the well established fact that LGBT students are frequently the targets of bullying and ostracism, especially due to their often experienced difficulties in fitting in, to the point where certain of the most well known and tragic instances of teen suicide were members of the LGBT community, Rabbi Goldstein has never taken steps to put measures in place to ensure LGBT education occurs at the Jewish schools, as has been done by the Chief Rabbi of the UK, and particularly at the frum schools in which homophobia is endemic. In fact, Rabbi Goldstein is so opposed to any inclusion of LGBT students within the Jewish community that he recently filed an affidavit with the United States Supreme Court (something which was remarkably in no way publicised himself in the local media, which secrecy speaks for itself), in which he opposed the right of an LGBT club to be established at Yeshiva University.

    Rabbi Goldstein further does not object to the prominent displays of the works of the rabid homophobe, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, at the front door of certain kosher stores. Rabbi Miller, in much of his work, has nothing but extreme hatred for all members of the LGBT community, regarding them as inherently and uniquely evil.

    Until such attitudes are changed, the platitudes expressed by Rabbi Goldstein can only ring hollow as it is clear that he cannot bring himself to have any sympathy for the bullying suffered by LGBT learners.

  3. David, ex Jew

    September 3, 2023 at 6:32 pm

    Nice words, but they mean nothing. The fact is that Judaism remains mired in the old-world notion that bullying is necessary to “toughen up” the weak and force the odd ones into assimilating. Hebrew school authorities ignore bullying (unless it becomes so severe that it presents a potential liability for the school.) When Jewish parents hear their kids are bullies they dismiss it as just another part of childhood. And when the bullied child grows up to leave Judaism it is assumed that they were just too weak and odd to be a good Jew.

    That was my experience through 8 agonizing years of Jewish education. When I went away to college, I found the Jewish community there to be made up of impenetrable cliques, so I went elsewhere to find welcome. It was when a rabbi insulted me during my eldest niece’s Bat Mitzvah that I decided never to enter a synagogue or identify myself as Jewish again.

    Maybe my story means nothing to you. Maybe losing me and my children was worth it in the minds of my former peers. But as synagogues around the USA close, try to understand that I am not the only one.

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