Combating Bullying

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Over the past couple of weeks at least seven gay, lesbian, and transgender students have committed suicide ( The biggest response has been actualized by the Trevor Project ( a hotline for LGBT teenagers. The issue has been one of bullying. I may have missed it, but I have seen no Jewish response to the situation. If I haven’t seen it, please let me know about it.

Agents of PeaceIn 2002, after the shooting at Santee, California, one of the rash of school shootings that popped up as a response to bullying, echoing the massacre at Columbine High School. I called the material Agents of Peace . Not the best name for the material in hindsight. I was interested in teaching the idea that it is a communal responsibility to put an end to bullying—and that the Jewish tradition offers some clear strategies that echo the popular literature on bullying.

Ask any kid and they will tell you that telling the teacher makes no difference. The first thing all of the anti-bullying literature will tell you is “tell the teacher.” The teacher needs to know, but if the teacher does his/her job well, no one else will know about it. The research shows that while some victims are shattered by having been bullied, the bullies are those most at risk for negative futures.  When we bring teachers into the equation and open the possibility of counseling and other help, we protect the victim and can help the victimizer.

This set of materials we designed began to work on three basic Jewish skills:

  • Doresh Shalom/Rodef Shalom (Seeking Peace/Being an Agent of Peace) being will to go out of one’s way for peace—and being will to give up for the sake of peace.
  • Someykh Noflim (Lifting Up the Fallen) going out of one’s way to comfort anyone who is hurting.
  • Tokhekhah (Constructive Negative Feedback) mastering the ability to help people see their flaws and work on fixing them.

If we can transmit these—we can do things to make schools safe in a way that policement, locker searches, and metal detectors can never hope to do.

The things that additional research says:

  1. A school culture that examines and rejects bullying can make a difference.
  2. Confronting bullies is not a sure behavior. It may end the behavior or it may make the person who confronts the bully the next target.
  3. Boys tend to bully through name calling and physical intimidation. Girls tend to bully through exclusion and through embarrassment in front of peers.
  4. Supporting the victim can help to mitigate the damage and hurt. We can train students to support those being bullied.
  5. Bullies play to audiences. Breaking up the “gang” that stands behind the bully can extinct the bullying.

All of these insights can be connected to Jewish roots.

The sermon! Jewish schools should take responsibility to train their students to be “agents of peace.” This means that should teach that not only is bullying wrong (and should never happen in a Jewish setting) but that being a Jew means supporting and helping anyone who is wrongly victimized.

Two stories in the early 2000s I work with a number of high school students using my anti-bullying material. Two moments stand out. One youth group told me about the system they have in place to always target students who were being ostracized and oppressed and not only to (a) invite them to eat lunch with their crew, but to (b) interview them, find their interests and match them up with people in their group who shared those interests. I was inspired. A few weeks later I worked with another group. In the midst of the conversation I told them about the first group and they responded: “We can’t do that, if we did, we would be targeted.”

Here is a simple bottom line, “Building sacred community means building social responsibility. Social responsibility sometimes happens in our schools and not in poor African countries.” How are you going to help your students to help?