As the film Contest opens, Tommy Dolan, who cannot swim, is being tossed into the high school pool for laughs by the school’s elite: the swim team stars who double as popular kids. Caught on camera, the prank earns the team diving champion a ticket to either suspension or to becoming an anti-bullying example and hero. He chooses the latter, but the plot thickens, and both victim and bully ultimately evolve.
The film was produced by two members of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor — Howard Alter and Martin Katz — and Steven Lerner. It first aired on the Cartoon Network in October, just in time for Anti-Bullying Month.
Next fall, it is scheduled to be shown to middle-schoolers around New Jersey.
“Bullying is unfortunately such a common topic in the media,” said Katz, who told NJJN he jumped at Alter’s invitation to join on the production. “If we could make this film and save one kid, it would be worth it,” he said in a phone interview.
On Feb. 23, local viewers will have an opportunity to see the film when it is screened at Beth El. The event is sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Mercer County, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, and the Principals’ Council of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
The free program, which includes facilitated discussions and breakout sessions, begins at 9:30 a.m. and runs until noon. Sixth- and seventh-graders and their parents are invited to attend whether or not they are members of the synagogue.
“Bullying is a very serious issue, and we want to place it in the context of Jewish values and Jewish community,” said JFCS executive director Linda Meisel. “We want students to understand how to behave appropriately, how to treat others with respect and care, and if they themselves are not being treated with respect and care, they should know that people in their Jewish community — the rabbi, the cantor, the educator — and their parents, as well as people from JFCS, are people they can go to, and that we are here for them.”
The Principals’ Council has been focusing on “keeping our religious school kids informed and educated on important topics like substance abuse and LGBT issues, not just as Jews but as human beings,” said Beth El’s Cantor Larry Brandspiegel, who is also its education director and chair of the Principals’ Council. “It made so much sense to bring this film to the group, since Marty Katz and Howard Alter are from our congregation. It’s a way to give their film exposure and bring our kids together to discuss how we should act.”
Although the state mandates that schools have an anti-bullying specialist and a school safety team, Meisel underscored the importance of reviewing the issue in a Jewish context.
“It’s always important to remind children that our Jewish values are so integral to who we are as individuals, families, and communities, and they need to guide our behavior,” she said.
Meisel called the film “a gift.”
“It’s really hard for kids to talk about themselves and speak in the first person about bullying. By using the film, we can talk about the behavior of the kids in the film. It opens up avenues of discussion, and kids don’t have to identify themselves, but can talk about a particular character.”
New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act became law in 2011, following a number of highly publicized incidents, including the case of a gay Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate recorded him in a sexual encounter with a man.
Screenplay writer and director Anthony Giunta, who formerly worked in human resources at the 92nd Street Y, told NJJN that the idea for the film came out his own experiences with bullying as a youngster.
“A million years ago, I was a bullied kid back in grade school and high school. I was subject to daily taunting and it just went on for a very long time,” he said.
Katz, Alter, and Giunta will be at the Feb. 23 screening.