How To Combat Bullying in the Jewish Community

Rona Novick by Sharon Altshul

Dr. Rona Milch Novick courtesy of Sharon Altshul

This year I again attended the conference, Shedding Light on the Darkness of Abuse, sponsored by the Tahel Jerusalem Crisis Center for Women and Children. The conference addressed a wide range of issues relating to treatment and prevention of abuse.

The conference also addressed abuse by peers, known as bullying. Bullying affects nearly all parents at some point, whether their children are victims, bullies, or both.

Dr. Rona Milch Novick, dean of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, spoke on Tuesday afternoon, December 1, 2015. Novick defined bullying as the abuse of power to deliberately cause harm. Causing harm is an important part of the definition. If a child pushes three children out of the way to be the first one to get ice cream, that is not bullying. But if the child then says to one of the children, “You can’t have ice cream because you’re fat,” that makes it bullying. The intent to hurt or shame the child must be present.

According to Novick, bullying occurs in three different forms: physical, emotional and social. While physical bullying is on the decline in the U.S., it has become more common among girls. And emotional and social bullying rates are rising among boys. Bullying peaks from 4th-8th grade, but is seen at all ages. The manner in which bullying manifests itself reflects the surrounding society. Who has the power? How is it used? What do we celebrate or value? All of these elements are likely to be reenacted in bullying scenarios. For instance, bullies whose parents are powerful community members tend to choose victims from less prominent or poorer families.

One myth about bullies says that they have low self-esteem. In reality, many have over-inflated self-esteem. But the outstanding characteristic of bullies is lack of empathy. The best way to prevent bullying is to teach children empathy from a very young age.

According to Novick, bullies like to take charge and gravitate toward leadership positions. Adults must stay aware and educate them on safe ways of using power.

Victims of bullying may be short or tall, fat or thin. While physical characteristics don’t determine who will be a victim, victims do tend to have similar psychological characteristics. They tend to be shy and retiring, and are often the ones who cry. Boys who cry are especially vulnerable, as crying becomes unacceptable for boys at an earlier age than for girls. Novick calls one class of victims “lower lip quiverers.” These children have trouble masking hurt feelings. The bully will often attempt to get a reaction from the victim. If they don’t get the desired reaction, they move on to someone else.

Novick mentions a class of victims that she calls “provocative.” Provocative victims are less aware of how their behavior annoys others. The talk too loudly, stand too close, or tap repeatedly on the desk. Teachers may find them annoying as well. When a bully attacks a provocative child, the child will respond in a provocative way, by shouting or hitting. Teachers may assume that the victim instigated the encounter, because they see only the response. Bullies tend to plan their actions carefully, so they don’t get noticed.

Research has shown that the actions of bystanders make a difference. 85% of bullying is witnessed, but most bystanders don’t take action. The main reasons are: desire to conform; dilution of responsibility (as in the Kitty Genovese case); and most disturbingly, dehumanization of victims. Too many children in our communities are seen as pariahs, or simply invisible. They are not seen as a valuable part of the group. Parents can help turn things around by paying attention to their children and make sure that members of the class are not being consistently left out. Not every child can be included every time. But if the same child is always left out, or derogatory comments are made, we can and should talk to our child about it.

We can teach children Jewish traditions against bullying, like the injunction not to stand idly by the blood of your brother, and loving your neighbor. We can teach kids anti-bullying tools like self-deprecating humor and distraction. But most importantly, we need to teach children empathy.

Novick gave two examples of techniques for teachers and parents to teach empathy. One teacher kept two sets of footprints that she took out frequently, whatever the subject. She would call up two kids and say to one: You are George Washington so you stand here. The other would take the role of a native American. They two children would then explain their positions to one another. One day the kids from her class came in after recess and asked to borrow the footprints. They had had a dispute about a ball, and used the footprints for role-play to resolve the dispute. They had begun to develop empathy and problem-solving skills.

Another technique uses stories or films about conflicts in order to get children to talk about how they would respond in a similar situation. After they talk about it in a general way, the teacher can ask them if they have ever faced a similar situation in their own school or neighborhood. The goal is to get the kids talking and listening to each other.

Thanks to Dr. Novick for sharing her wisdom on this very relevant topic.

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Cyber-Bullying, Teens, and Facebook

Babies to Prevent Bullying


  1. Great article. It inspired us to discuss what is bullying at the Shabbos table.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Imho what is missing is schools but very much part of progressive education is building a community of caring learners where pro-social and cooperative learning helps promote empathy and caring. Collaborative problem solving and restorative justice has to replace traditional school disipline. Traditionally schools are competitive driven by extrinsic motivation where there are winners and losers. We need to create this pro-social environment so leaders canlearn to caring, responsible and feel good from making a contribution and not feeling good from using power to hurt the weak and control others.

  3. I was driven out of the Jewish community by bullying.

    I attended a conservative synagogue in San Diego when I was a child, and forced the attend Hebrew school there. I could go on for pages about the abuse I received at the hands of my “brethren” at that school. What was more shocking though was the way the adults in the school ignored the bullying which took place in front of them. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that kids were bullied for being different, and that if some one did not want to be bullied they should try harder to fit in. For those who missed it, that’s a pretentious way of saying that children who are bullied get what they deserve.

    The abuse I received from my peers though was nothing compared to what I revived from my Bar Mitzvah teacher. By the time I fell into his clutches I was severely depressed. However, since depression apparently does not exist in the Jewish community, his only explanation for my failure to meet his expectations was that I was either lazy or stupid. I know this because he demanded to know which one I was every week I met with him.

    Ah, but now Jewish wisdom thinks it is catching up with secular wisdom and is ready to put up the pretense that bullying is bad. Frankly, I doubt that anyone is being fooled. Bullying is too firmly ingrained in Jewish culture to ever be exorcised. That’s why I left.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, D. Cohen. There is pressure to conform in some Jewish communities, but in many other social groups as well. I hope you have found a good place for yourself outside of the community.

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