Aron Hirt-Manheimer (RJ editor): What is bullying?
Dr. Dale Atkins (psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform
congregant): Humiliating, shaming, threatening, or intimidating someone into
acting or thinking a certain way.
Rabbi Edythe/Edie Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author,
organizational consultant): Determining whether or not bullying is occurring
often depends on the context. Two people may perceive the same situation
differently. A group of men teasing one another, for example, might be viewed by
one person as bullying and by another as engaging in normal “guy” behavior.
Another example: When a friend of mine—who is very articulate but has a mild
spelling disability—was in fifth grade, her teacher wrote a comment on one of
her assignments: “Amanda, the content is beautiful, but your spelling is
disgusting.” Feeling that such a comment was bullying and hurtful, her mother
replied to the teacher: “Dear Mrs. G., Amanda has difficulties with spelling,
and I don’t mind if you tell her to correct the spelling, but could you please
not say it is ‘disgusting’?” The next time Amanda handed in a writing
assignment, the teacher wrote another comment: “Amanda, sweetheart, your content
is still beautiful, but your mother doesn’t want me to tell you that your
spelling is disgusting.” Now an adult professional (though still not a great
speller), Amanda considers Mrs. G. the best elementary school teacher she ever
had, and her mother has come to agree. Clearly, in addition to communicating
criticism in a blunt style, the teacher also wished to convey her affection for
Amanda and her appreciation of Amanda’s writing ability. Amanda did not feel
belittled, demeaned, or silenced. For her, Mrs. G.’s style, color, humor, and
zaniness were valuable and memorable, in contrast to more “safe” comments by
other teachers that never made an impression.
We also need to be careful not to leap to the assumption that one person is
bullying another just because he/she is acting in a way that seems inappropriate
to us. Like the time I rushed into a bakery to buy challah right before
Shabbat. Seeing two open registers, with two people at one and 10 at the other,
I went to the back of the shorter line…and suddenly I felt the store go quiet. I
paid, people wished me “ Shabbat Shalom, ” and it was only when I left
that I realized that the first line was being fed by the second. Not one person
in that store said to me, “Don’t cut in line.” They didn’t want to shame me;
they gave me the benefit of the doubt that my behavior was unintentional,
probably a result of feeling pressured by Shabbat preparations. And, in fact,
they would have been wrong to think I was purposefully bullying my way ahead of
them rather than misperceiving the situation to my own advantage.
It is much better for one’s peace of mind when we do not assume that every
aggressive, unkind, inappropriate, or selfish act is perpetrated against us
because we look like a pushover, and to allow for the possibility of another
explanation. Maybe someone cut us off in traffic because he’s rushing to a
sick child. Or perhaps a coworker’s disturbing comment is indicative of
something’s wrong at home. We can say to ourselves, I need more
evidence to know if this is intentional bullying or not. And, if it’s
possible and appropriate, we can suspend judgment and ask the other person
gently, “Is there a reason you really needed to go first?”
Joy Weinberg (RJ managing editor): Why do some adults feel entitled
to act aggressively toward other adults?
Dale: They believe:
I am worth more than others, and therefore I deserve more and come before
anyone or anything else. They exempt themselves from the rules that apply to
the rest of us.
Some of these adults were bullied when they were children. Some learned as
kids that the only way to get what they wanted was to be antagonistic toward
others. Some discovered that intimidation helped in climbing the career ladder,
a belief often reinforced by those who’ve treated them deferentially despite
their inappropriate behavior.
Edie: Some human beings appear to be born with a quicker temper, a
lower frustration tolerance, a tendency to easily feel hurt, and a poor ability
to modulate their impulses when they don’t get their way. They may be “wired” to
respond with aggression or outrage more often than others—which, of course,
doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to inhibit these responses. In addition, some
people express anger at someone else because it helps them feel stronger and
less helpless in the face of disappointment.
A non-supportive, anxiety-provoking environment can also make the difference
between aggressive behavior and more modulated responses. For example, an
intimidated schoolteacher who has been told her job is on the line unless her
children reach certain academic goals may become irate with students who haven’t
been doing their work. Conversely, if her principal supports her in becoming a
more effective teacher, she may extend that same encouragement to her students.
One’s experience growing up can also play a significant role. Both a child
who has never been given what she needs as well as one who has never been denied
what she wants may have difficulty bearing frustration in adulthood.
Understanding the origin of another person’s disturbing behavior, however,
does not excuse it, but may afford us some insights to help us respond
effectively and wisely.
Joy: What are some of the best ways to respond when you’re being
Dale: If you can, resist feeling intimidated—which is often what the
aggressor wants you to feel. Sometimes people don’t stand up to a bully because
they are afraid of being attacked or because they fear retribution. But failure
to take action sends the message that the bully can continue intimidating you,
and reinforces your own sense of powerlessness.
Try assertive responses against the bully, such as looking him/her firmly in
the eye while standing straight, and in a clear tone of voice (without sounding
threatening) saying, “I believe you are trying to bully me. I want this behavior
Do not fall into the trap of responding to bullying behavior by saying or
doing something nasty to the perpetrator. Doing so will only demonstrate that
the bully has succeeded in getting to you, which is liable to escalate the
Edie: A colleague of mine uses the “traffic-light technique” to
calibrate her response to what feels like bullying. Though this method may seem
simple or obvious, it is, in fact, difficult to sustain. It works like this:
When you are in the red zone, overcome by anger, frustration, or fear:
STOP—don’t say or do anything, because your response is likely to be extreme and
you might regret it later. Try to calm yourself with deep breathing, counting,
or whatever helps you regain composure and perspective.
When you are in the yellow zone, a little calmer and less driven by strong
emotion, consider explanations for the offending person’s behavior that aren’t
personally aimed at you—perhaps there was a misunderstanding, the other person
is upset about something else, or he/she doesn’t realize the impact. Then, weigh
how you might respond constructively, gauging how a range of possible responses
are likely to affect the other person as well as contemplating what’s in your
own best interest.
Depending upon your temperament, the level of distress evoked by the
situation, and your state of mind, it may take a few moments or more than a few
hours to move from red through yellow to the green zone, where your responses
are likely to reflect control and wisdom. When you are confident that you’re in
the green zone, able to bring together both your emotional and your measured
responses, proceed with whatever action seems best—which, depending on the
situation, may also be to keep your own counsel on the matter.
Joy: Such as when you’re being bullied by your supervisor at work and
speaking up might endanger your job?
Dale: Yes, in that instance, you may be better off documenting the
negative episodes in writing (should you later choose to address the issue with
HR) or seeking the help of a trusted colleague. Another strategy is navigating
around a bullying boss. A woman I know tells this story: One of the worst
bullies I’ve ever dealt with was a boss who was the company president’s best
friend. During staff meetings this boss would try to bait members of the
management team into picking fights with him. As the only female on the team, I
chose a different tactic: I refused to take the bait. Instead, I’d take a deep
breath to help me remain calm, put a pleasant look on my face, stay quiet, and
let him air his grievances until he literally ran out of steam. When he realized
he couldn’t lure me into an argument, he’d move on to the next person. The
fights seemed to fill him with energy, as if he lived for those moments. So I
always figured, why give him the satisfaction?
Also keep in mind that an adult can act nastily because of a false assumption
that her target poses a threat or an obstacle in her path. Demonstrating that
you are on her side—anything from saying a friendly “good morning” to offering
help with something—may get you out of harm’s way and avoid future incidents.
However, if the bullying behavior continues, you’ll need to try a different
approach, because you don’t want to send the message that you find her nastiness
Joy:It’s not easy to respond to provocation with restraint and
Dale: That’s true. Try walking away from the person while holding an
internal conversation about how sad it is that she needs to try to make someone
else feel badly in order to make herself feel better. Think about the good
things in your life: the people you love and who love you. Create a mental image
of a time you were happy. You’ll be walking away from a negative experience and
replacing it with something positive.
Try to be peaceful and generous, too. Let’s say your usually wonderful
partner blurts out something cruel. Know that there’s an underlying reason for
his tactlessness—that the very moment when he is at his ugliest is also when he
needs your love the most. Do not allow yourself to be verbally abused, but do
open your heart and remember what he is like when he is at his best. And
whatever the circumstances, remember that when somebody attacks you, it’s not
your fault. Whether you choose to work it through with the person or ignore it
and move on, you do not deserve this kind of treatment. And if your emotional
response to consistent provocation is fear—such as feeling stressed, vulnerable,
afraid, anxious, diminished, and/or depressed—your physical, emotional,
spiritual, and mental health may be at risk. Get help from a doctor, rabbi,
friend, or therapist.
Edie: There is a Chasidic teaching that asks: What might we find if we
could see within the heart of evil? The answer: a crying baby. As this teaching
suggests, when we encounter someone acting in seemingly cruel, selfish, even
monstrous ways, often deep within the person is a hurt, desperate child who
feels unheard and wants to be loved. While this reality may make the behavior no
less dangerous, our awareness of it can help us respond in more gentle,
empathetic ways which may work to disarm the person. Stories like Beauty and
the Beast embody this wisdom. When we can convey to a human being who seems
unattractively brutal our belief that he also has a beautiful and generous soul
within, we may nurture the loving part of his character.
The Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 65b teaches that every individual can be judged
by three measures: cos, kees, and ca’as.Cos refers to how
the person acts when intoxicated (by alcohol or perhaps by power, fame, etc.).
Kees refers to how the person manages his/her wallet—how generous, how
miserly, how responsibly money is handled. Ca’as assesses how the person
reacts when angered. One who engages in bullying behavior may abuse power, act
ungenerously, and turn quickly to anger. And when we’re attacked, whether or not
we respond with anger is a measure of our character.
That said, even God wrestles with anger in responding to human beings’
disobedience. In the Noah story, after the flood God hangs a rainbow in the sky
as a reminder to never again unleash such destruction, saying: “I establish my
covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of
the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth….This is
the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living
creature that is with you, for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). In the
Talmud, when asked what God’s prayer might be, the rabbis responded: “May…My
mercy…suppress My anger…so that I may deal with My children [with] mercy and go
beyond the requirements of strict justice” (Talmud Berakhot 7a). Jewish
tradition understands that we who are made in God’s image also need to tap into
our well of mercy to help us respond constructively when provoked.
Joy:Is it appropriate to intervene if a friend is being
Edie:Sometimes it is better to encourage a friend to speak up for himself.
Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?....” That
was my choice years ago when I watched a fellow camp counselor be the butt of
supposedly innocuous but potentially humiliating jokes by one of the unit
supervisors. While I was tempted to plea that we stop joking, as someone might
feel belittled, I also recognized that publicly intervening would embarrass the
supervisor and might be inappropriate. So instead I walked back to the bunk with
my co-counselor and suggested that he talk with the supervisor privately,
explaining that the jokes are hurtful to him, even though he does not let his
feelings show. In the end, the supervisor thanked my colleague for telling him,
and never did it again. I also sensed that my co-counselor rose in our
supervisor’s estimation. And we both became better counselors, too, because we
came to recognize that seemly “harmless” joking really is humiliating, and we
avoided that approach with the campers.
Other times, intervening on someone else’s behalf is preferable. As the
remainder of the Hillel quotation says, “If I am only for myself, what am I? And
if not now, when?” I once took a course in which many of the students were
repeatedly intimidated by the professor, a respected scholar. One day, a student
earnestly expressed an idea relating to valuing piety over scientific
rationality, and the professor responded with mockery. The room fell silent.
After a few moments, a second student spoke up, saying she was deeply
uncomfortable with the way the professor had treated the first student. The
professor turned on this second student in an even more insulting manner, which
inspired the rest of us to seek the help of the dean, who worked over time to
address the issue with the professor—and also made sure that the two students
were protected from any further retaliation on the professor’s part.
Overcoming fear and paralysis to speak out in someone’s defense is not always
easy; sometimes there is risk, and more often no immediate positive resolution.
Everyone is strengthened, however, when we are moved to confront and diminish
tyranny, even if it takes quite a while to achieve our goals. “Do not stand by
idly as your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16) is an important lesson.
If you do choose the path of involvement, refrain from responding with anger
or humiliating the person who has behaved unkindly. As Babia Metzia 58b teaches:
“Whosoever shames another in public is like shedding blood.”
Dale: To restrain yourself from “losing it,” remember your goal: being
there for your friend. An outburst is unlikely to keep her safe, secure, and
supported. Also, question your motives and consider alternatives: Why do I
want to shame or humiliate someone? Is there another way?
In addition, consider whether an intervention might backfire. For example, if
your friend is in an abusive, dangerous relationship, interceding might place
her in additional jeopardy; a better approach may be to wait until you can talk
confidentially with your friend about finding safe haven, support, and resources
if she considers leaving the relationship.
Aron: A friend of mine has witnessed public shaming at his temple board
meetings. How is bullying behavior best handled in a congregational setting?
Edie: In this type of situation, it is often helpful to bring in an
outside congregational consultant. A URJ consultant I know helped to diffuse
tensions at a synagogue after the head of the ritual committee publicly
criticized temple board members for failing to attend worship services and
accused them of serving on the board only to gain status or enhance resumés. The
rabbi was deeply troubled by the ritual committee president’s attacks, but
shared his concern about board members’ absenteeism at services.
To help remedy this situation, the congregation held a board retreat in which
the consultant asked everyone about their childhood and adult experiences with
prayer. Some members shared their religious longings, their feelings of
inadequacy in worship settings because of a lack of Hebrew comprehension, and
their discomfort with certain rituals. Gradually, what emerged was an
understanding of why some board members were avoiding services, even though
Jewish connection mattered very much to them. The head of the ritual committee
was then able to acknowledge that some people expressed their love of Judaism
through devotion to community and acts of loving kindness. He also formed a work
group of board members interested in exploring what might make worship services
more engaging to those who avoided them. Some joined a “learners’
minyan”; others selected inspirational readings addressing current
community and personal concerns to include in services. In the end, some members
remained uninterested in services, others found new meaning in regular
prayer—but all had found a supportive way to acknowledge and address their
Another approach to handling hurtful speech is to motivate each
congregational committee, including the board, to become a caring community, and
entrust one representative in every group to be aware of potential problems and
bring them to the group’s attention for everyone’s well-being. A congregation’s
caring committee might include individuals who also serve on other committees,
and in turn bring a commitment to mutual respect to those groups, thereby
helping to transform the congregation into a more caring place. You can also
engage in Jewish study together on what constitutes effective leadership, useful
speech, and appropriate emotive responses.
Dale: I saw such remedies instituted at one congregation, and the
differences were remarkable. Before the intervention, members of the board acted
disrespectfully toward one another, making comments (“that is the most
ridiculous thing I have ever heard”), interrupting before a thought was
finished, sighing aloud, and using facial expressions (such as eye rolling) to
communicate their displeasure. Sometimes votes were taken on important issues
without full consideration because people did not want to risk feeling
humiliated in this environment.
When some of the board members told the president they were considering
resigning because of the disturbing tenor of the meetings, the president
required every board member to attend three retreats facilitated by an expert in
board relations. At the retreats, members participated in group problem-solving,
role playing, and other exercises that demonstrated how each person’s
perspective was valuable in solving the issue at hand. Additionally, the group
examined what was “acceptable” and “unacceptable” means of interaction through
the lens of Jewish text, teachings, and stories. Together they formulated a new
goal: to work together kindly.
Over time, board members changed their behavior. And on occasion, when they
reverted to undesirable behavior patterns, others in the group gently reminded
them about the group’s mission. New board members were informed of the standards
of behavior at the outset. It became safe to express disagreement with the
prevailing opinion, and a fuller range of perspectives were on the table for
consideration. In this open environment, people seemed to care more about one
another and take responsibility for their own actions.
Edie: The lesson here reminds me of the story of the rabbi who was
accosted by a group of pro-Nazi thugs in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
One of the teens held a bird cupped in his hand and said, “Tell me, rabbi, since
you Jews are supposed to be so wise and holy—is the bird I am holding alive or
dead? I will show my friends how stupid you Jews really are!” The rabbi thought
carefully before he responded. He knew that if he said, “The bird is dead,” the
bully would release it and affirm for his followers that Jews are fools,
inciting more aggression; and if he said, “The bird is alive,” the bully would
squeeze it to death. The rabbi said softly, “The answer, my son, is in your
hands. The answer is in your hands.”
The answer to how we conduct ourselves when faced with—or tempted by—bullying
behavior is in our own hands.
Bullying — URJ Resources
Cyberbullying & Sexting
Webinar: This interactive seminar hosted by the URJ and the ADL is designed
to help synagogue lay leaders and professionals who interact with or supervise
teens in addressing cyberbullying and sexting prevention and response. Thursday,
December 2 at 2:00pm EST
NFTY Resources: NFTY has
assembled a collection of resources on bullying, including information about
helplines, the Jewish perspectives on tochecha (rebuke), how to get
involved in eradicating bullying in your community, programmatic resources, and
more. Visit nfty.org/resources/guides/bullying.
Additional Resources: For books and links email Craig
Rosen, Youth Specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org
or Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Director of Teen Engagement, at email@example.com.