It did not seem to matter that the bullies and their victims came from small towns, from the Bible Belt, or Sioux City, Iowa, or Perkins, Okla. And it did not matter that the relentless taunting and physical assaults were happening to those from demographics very different from Jewish Pittsburgh.
Rather, the realities poignantly illustrated in “Bully: The Movie” touched a nerve with local teens and parents, who viewed the film together last Sunday at the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill, through a program organized by Beth Goldstein, director of teen education at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“This film needs to be shown not just to 40 Jewish kids in Pittsburgh,” said one parent at a discussion held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh following the screening. “This film needs to be shown in every school across the country.”
“Bully: The Movie” was the first of two programs that will round out the Lauren Webster Young Adult Initiative, a program intended to curb and raise awareness about the pressures on young people that too often tragically lead to suicide.
The AJL, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and Rodef Shalom Congregation sponsored the program, which was made possible by the Lauren Webster Young Adult Initiative.
Goldstein, after first viewing the film last year, decided to bring it to her J-Site students, as well as the broader community, to raise awareness of the pervasiveness and danger of bullying, and to give teens a chance to talk about it.
“I know this is a really important issue for middle school and high school students,” Goldstein told the Chronicle. “I think it is definitely an issue that’s going on in their schools and in their lives. It’s different from when I was growing up. Now, bullying follows them home. It’s in their computers; it’s in their phones.”
About 100 teens and adults viewed the film, a documentary that follows the lives of several teenagers who are the victims of bullies at school and on the school bus.
The film revealed the devastating effect of bullying on children and their families, including, in some cases, suicide.
It also exposed the appalling inadequacies of the adults in charge — from principals to school board officials to bus drivers — in dealing with the problem.
Following the film, the teens and adults met separately to discuss the film.
In small groups, the teens discussed Jewish texts concerning how to treat others and themselves, and then joined together for a larger discussion with Mark Lepore, a doctor of counselor education who is on staff at JF&CS as a career consultant.
“The kids talked about how it felt in their schools, and they related to the characters in the film,” Goldstein said. “Some said it was a problem in their schools, and some said it wasn’t. When I asked if there were anti-bullying programs in their schools, I could see that all the Mt. Lebanon kids raised their hands.”
Wendy Levin-Shaw, a licensed clinical social worker who is on staff at JF&CS, Jordan Golin, a doctor of psychology and director of clinical services at JF&CS, and Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the AJL, led the adult session.
“It blows my mind how long we’ve known about [the problem of bullying], and it just keeps going,” said one parent at the session. “There just needs to be more outrage.”
The Jewish community lags behind the public schools in the effort to effectively address bullying, Aaron told the group.
“We lag on it in the Jewish community,” he said, “because there is almost no research effort.”
Supplementary religious school is one arena in particular where bullying is notoriously alive and well, and where teachers, administrators and rabbis are not trained to deal with it effectively, according to Aaron.
“It’s just not a focus in supplementary schools,” he said. “They don’t have the kids for that long, and its usually treated as a discipline issue and not bullying.”
Part of the problem is denial, according to Aaron.
“We [Jews] are historically victimized,” he said, “so to recognize that we’re engaging in behavior that is aggressive is problematic.”
To effectively deal with bullying, Jews need to first be willing to recognize that their children can be bullies, to call it what it is, he said. “We have worked so hard to be part of the larger community; we haven’t addressed the reality that our kids can be like other kids.”
The Orthodox community “is ahead on addressing this,” Aaron said, attributing its progress in curtailing bullying with its willingness to define it: aggressive behavior that is intentional, repetitive and stems from an imbalance of power.
“If these three things exist, you need to recognize it as bullying,” he said.
When a child is bullied within a Jewish institution, that child can be lost to Judaism, Aaron said.
“Kids don’t want to go back to the Jewish community after their bar mitzva if they have been bullied in Hebrew school while in middle school,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)