ADL tackles bullying as a national issue
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ADL tackles bullying as a national issue

The problem demands a Jewish response, says Salkin

Sometimes, a person has the good fortune to be able to pursue several passions at once.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, recently named director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office and a longtime writer on the subject of Jewish values, considers himself among those fortunate people.

In bringing together both areas of interest, Salkin – who will speak at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai on Oct. 28 – hopes to “reach audiences in different ways.”

Focusing on the issue of bullying, the ADL director will “bring to the conversation a discussion of how we can raise consciousness about this and let Jewish values find a voice in this discussion.”

“For many years, I’ve devoted a lot of writing and thinking to the subject of bar/bat mitzvah,” said Salkin, whose Tenafly talk is called “From bully to blessings – being a mensch at your bar or bat mitzvah.”

His book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, was published in the 1990s and continues to be a top seller. Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens was published in June and “brings together divrei Torah by all sorts of Jews aimed at teens, [spurring them] to think about what’s important in their lives.”

Reciting a list of contributors to the new book – from those in the Jewish Renewal movement to representatives of the three major streams of Judaism – Salkin said the combination of these views “is a lesson of civility we can bring to the new year.”

Noting that most of his career has been involved in conversations about rituals and celebrations, the rabbi said, “We need to reclaim [the idea] that a 13-year-old is morally responsible. You have a moral responsibility to stick up for your friends.”

Upon reaching the age of bar mitzvah, “You have to take your training wheels off – upgrade to being a mensch,” living your life according to Jewish values. A mensch, he added, “is not perfect, not a saint. One simply has to try hard enough.”

In his talk at Temple Sinai, the new ADL director hopes to connect with parents concerned about the issue of bullying, showing them how the ADL is tackling the problem on a national level.

“This is not your grandfather’s ADL,” he said, noting that the organization is not just concerned about anti-Semitism but “about how we take care of everybody. We have a responsibility to make it better,” he said, pointing out that the ADL has launched a national anti-bullying initiative.

“In my new role, I’ve become convinced that bullying is a major issue,” said Salkin, adding that the Centers for Disease Control has identified bullying as a major public health problem among American teenagers.

“We’ve got to believe that it’s equally as bad in the Jewish community,” he said.

Salkin said he spoke to a woman in Jerusalem about the problem over the summer.

“Her ears perked up,” he said. “Her daughter had been bullied in a Jewish day school, and the administration did nothing about it.”

Bullying is not always physical, he noted, but also may include both verbal assaults and emotional browbeating. In addition, cyber-bullying is a growing concern.

“Most people most of the time don’t do any violence with their fists, but we do it with our lips,” he said. “The tongue is such a dangerous organ. While it is surrounded by walls of flesh, it is guarded by a cage of teeth.”

In addition to teaching the value of prudent speech, he will also speak about “not standing idly by,” as found in Leviticus, 19. In Tenafly, he will stress the idea of “not standing idly by when you see a kid being harassed.”

“I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid,” he joked, explaining his commitment to addressing the issue. He noted as well that he was greatly influenced by the film “Bully” and has come to realize that “we, as Jews, need a response to this.”

The ADL, he said, is bringing its anti-bullying program into public schools throughout the country.

“We did it recently in Morristown,” he added, “largely as a result of the suicide of a teenager [there] in the late spring.”

“It’s not enough merely to talk about how to solve the issue on a communal level,” he said. “This is a Jewish issue because we are a bullied people and we are descended from the great teacher, Moses, who started his career fighting against bullies.”

He noted that resources are being developed across the country to address the issue from the perspective of Jewish values.

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