At the request of many readers, this column is a follow-up to my recent interview with Captain Eilon Even-Esh of Israel on the issue of bullying. The interview’s purpose was to seek solutions to the bullying problem in the frum community.
Here are two stories from Captain Even-Esh about bullying:
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Learned victimization: A Brooklyn mother complained that her son was acting “not like himself.” He was talking disrespectfully to her and his rebbeim. This was an entirely new phenomenon since the mother reported that, “he has always been such a respectful boy.” She thought that he was simply feeling restless and perhaps a bit stressed from his studies. Since her son recently showed an interest in mixed martial arts, she thought that the exercise and discipline would help alleviate his outbursts. She called me to set up a lesson.
Every first lesson is different as each person has a different history. My first question is: “Have you ever been physically threatened? If so, what happened?” If the reply is in the affirmative, I deconstruct the event and show the client a technique that could have been used as a defense in the situation. In his case, the boy mentioned an incident whereby a stranger pulled up in front of his house and asked him and his brother to get in the car. The man almost came out of the car to grab them.
During the lessons he told me about a bachur in his class who picks on everyone to the point that he was threatened with expulsion. I asked the obvious question: “Does he bully you?”
“He bullies everyone,” he answered. “No big deal, really.”
I asked him to describe exactly what transpires that makes him feel that he is being bullied. As the boy offered the details, his voice became quieter and his face reddened. I noticed that he was holding his breath. Yet he still maintained that it was “no big deal.”
But it was a big deal. This very nice boy was at the receiving end of constant psychological and physical abuse. In essence, he learned to play the role of victim. Continuing our conversation, he realized that this was a problem that bothered him more than he was ready to admit. He and I immediately started training in the relevant techniques, and I informed his mother that we might have found the reason for her son’s behavioral change.
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A story that touches the heart: This disturbing story is not a classic case of bullying; rather, it is a story of one child’s sociopathic act of cruelty toward another.
A mother from Queens confided to me that her child was brutally molested and sexually abused for three years without her knowledge. My gut reaction was to visit the Megan’s List website for registered sex offenders in that area (www.criminaljustice.ny.gov). To my horror, the mother said that the abuse was at the hand of another minor who, thank God, was now removed from their life.
With the blessing of the family’s rabbi and help from proper therapists, we started the training under the mother’s watchful eye. We focused on how to defend one’s self against a larger attacker in very close quarters. It was a pleasure to see the child’s eyes brighten upon realizing that there was an answer to his very difficult situation. Between drills, the child would smilingly run to his mother and hug her.
The child and I are still training under the mother’s close attention. The sense of empowerment and improved wellbeing I have witnessed in this child is truly humbling.
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I wonder why bullying exists in our community and in society at large? I was very surprised at a 30-year-old client’s explanation.
“I was a bully back in my yeshiva days and I was probably the biggest instigator in the school,” he began. “There was this kid in class who was a bit awkward and I would be the one to start the chants of ‘Nerd, nerd, nerd!’ I was pretty ruthless, so much so that the rabbi took me to a meeting with the kid’s father who asked me why his son was constantly being harassed. I had nothing to say and just sat there in silence. In retrospect, it was unfair to ask a kid in 5th grade this question. But I guess I would have answered, ‘I don’t know. Why does your son have to be so different? Why does he bring such a weird lunch to school every day?’ I could have gone on and on.”
For the record, this former bully is one of the nicest people I know and I was totally shocked when he divulged to me his abusive past. So I asked him, “Now, as a 30-year-old father, how would you have answered the question?”
My client thoughtfully replied, “You know, at the time, it just made me feel better about myself. I knew it hurt the kid’s feelings. But that fact just wasn’t at the top of my mind.”
Is feeling better about one’s self and not caring about the feelings of others the reasons why bullies exist in the frum world? After all, most bullies certainly aren’t sociopaths like the one in the aforementioned sexual abuse case. Could it be so simple?
I would humbly submit that the reason for bullying is a bit more complex than that. In our community bullying stems from, or is allowed to grow in, an environment created by the following:
1. The inability or widespread apathy of yeshiva administrations and rebbeim to deal with the problem.
2. Denial and/or apathy by both the bully’s parents and the bully him/herself.
3. The victim’s parents’ refusal to deal with the problem. This can be accomplished by bringing the situation to the attention of someone who can do something about it.
4. Most of our children are weak and unable to protect themselves. Despite our tremendous meilos, our community doesn’t value athleticism or even good health. We should teach our children self-defense, even at the back end of their education.
So how do we fix the bullying problem? By educating our children and offering incentives to them.
All children should exercise, with elements of self-defense training mixed in. But one child standing up to a bully is not enough to solve this problem. The majority of bullying occurs in a public environment where a bully can draw strength from vocal spectators or a crowd’s silent approval. Yeshivas should have a program in place that rewards students for helping prevent bullying when they witness it. The children will thus fix the problem themselves.
Captain Even-Esh’s Torah-true mission is to establish a healthy sense of confidence, self- esteem and empowerment in children and adults. As someone said of him, “He embodies discipline, kindness, middos and chesed.” He gives our community’s bnei Torah the tools to deal with almost any situation that they might face.
If anyone can benefit (or knows someone who can) from Captain Even-Esh’s unique ability to help others, he can be reached at 917-376-3637. He is available for private and group sessions.
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