At Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, Jordan Herskowitz, dean of students at the upper school, is considering starting the new school year with an anti-bullying statement and pledge provided by a secular foundation.
“It articulates well the values and ways of being kind to others that are important to our school,” he told NJJN. GOA is a day school affiliated with the Conservative movement.
The statement opens, “We all have had times when we’ve said or done hurtful things to others … Sometimes people even use God’s name or Jewish scripture to hurt people. They might quote the Torah or the Talmud in a way that puts certain people down and makes them feel bad about themselves.”
The statement’s language affirms that bullying is antithetical to Judaism. “Any act of bullying, harassment, or humiliation against another person … is against our values as a Jewish community.”
The toolkit, created specifically for the Jewish community by the Tyler Clementi Foundation, launched May 27. The idea is to use the statement and pledge to set a tone that creates a safe space on the first day of school, summer camp, religious school, or youth group activities.
NJJN shared the content with more than 30 professionals in Jewish camps, schools, and youth groups. Of the 11 who responded, only Herskowitz expressed interested in utilizing the program. Some of those who spoke with NJJN took issue with specific aspects of the toolkit such as the length of the anti-bullying statement, the God and text language it contains, and a muddying of the term “bullying.”
A few even suggested that a statement is insufficient if there is not a culture of kindness already in place.
“I like the ethos of the statement — it’s very juicy,” said Yoni Stadlin, director of Eden Village Camp. But he said the statement alone won’t foster any kind of change. “What’s in the air, what’s cool at camp” is what sets the tone, he said.
Jane Clementi of Ridgewood is co-founder of the Clementi Foundation. It’s named for her son, Tyler, who died by suicide in 2010 at the age of 18 after his roommate at Rutgers University, where they were both freshmen, secretly videotaped Tyler engaged in an intimate act with another man and shared it on social media.
Jane, an evangelical Christian, said faith-based rejection was a “huge part” of her son’s story. When he came out to his parents, Jane has acknowledged in media reports, she did not embrace what he told her. The Foundation’s primary goal “is to eliminate faith-based bullying. No one should ever feel inferior because of any part of their identity, and faith should be a place to grow with relationships and feel supported and loved,” she said. “When those institutions tell you that there’s something wrong with who you are, with something that you cannot change, that truly has very destructive and harmful effects on a person.”
Reaching out to faith groups is an extension of the Clementi Foundation’s #Day1 campaign, started in 2015 with a free downloadable declaration and pledge against bullying for use by schools and youth groups. The faith-based version of #Day1 began with a Christian version that came out three months ago, followed by the Jewish statement in May. Others are in the works for the Muslim, Mormon, and Sikh communities.
“I realized as we were working to change the dogma and bias [of Christianity] that it goes deeper than just one faith community,” she said.
To bolster its credibility among Jewish audiences, the statement and pledge cite specific Jewish values like b’tzelem Elokim, that everyone is created in God’s image, and not oppressing the stranger, since Jews were once strangers in a strange land. Besides the statement, tailored to each faith group, are several examples of harmful behavior, including speaking behind other kids’ backs, excluding them, physically hurting them, “telling them that their sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong or shameful,” or doing anything that “could make them feel bad.”
Jane believes the pledge offers a message that vulnerable youth need to hear. “I see through Tyler’s eyes,” she said, and she believes that kids like him who read the pledge will receive the message that “this will be a safe place for them.”
Rivka Nelson, director of religious education at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, said she wouldn’t be able to use the statement because “It sounds like I’d be scolding kids for something they haven’t done.”
Similarly, Stacey David, education director of Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center, said she would not be using the pledge, because “the anti-bullying declaration brings in a negative tone. To make any kind of change in a school, you need to be positive about the change, and prioritize positivity.”
Many of those who responded to NJJN said they already have anti-bullying policies and programs in place. For example, Isaac Mamaysky, founder and director of Camp Zeke in Lakewood, Pa., said the camp has an extensive policy that kids and parents must sign that even includes social media throughout the year.
On the first day at Camp Poyntelle, a Jewish summer camp in the Pocono Mountains, campers break into small groups and create, on blocks of wood, their own pledges centering on kindness and respect, not leaving other kids out, and not being mean. Throughout the summer, when issues arise, camp director Ryan Peters said he directs the offender back to the pledge from the opening ceremony. “You get that moment of silence, and then I say, ‘OK, now what can you do differently to be true to those words?’”
A camp director who asked not to be named suggested that the statement is too long to hold kids’ attention, and that there’s a relevance problem: Few will have heard people using God’s name or Jewish texts to hurt people. “Once you start talking about things kids have not experienced, their attention goes to the blade of grass in front of them.”
He added that the idea of bullying is too “watered down,” ultimately including anything said that is hurtful, which, from his perspective, doesn’t qualify as bullying; bullying, in his opinion, involves a continuous and concerted effort to target someone.
With the exception of the comments regarding negativity, Herskowitz doesn’t disagree with his colleagues. He said he would probably edit the statement down; cut the initial references to using God’s name, Torah, and Talmud to inflict harm; and make a few other changes. But he likes the idea of the pledge.
“It’s a way to get students to commit to following expectations and commit to good behavior and actions that help create more productivity and a safe working environment,” he said. GOA already has an anti-bullying policy in place, but he said the pledge would improve its effectiveness. GOA previously worked with the Tyler Clementi Foundation when the school staged “The Laramie Project,” a play which explores the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, through interviews with his hometown community members in the aftermath of his death.
The #Day1 materials for the Jewish community were developed with input from Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, an Orthodox rabbi who is a prominent supporter of transgender Jews; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan; and Rabbi Victor Appell, Reform community rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Rutgers Hillel.
The statement and pledge is available online to download for free at tylerclementi.org/day1-for-jewish-faith-communities.