In the corner of a sunlit classroom at Torah Academy, three sixth-grade girls gossiped about an upcoming party.
A few feet away, well within earshot, a lone girl sat staring down at her desk, careful not to look up from the drawing she was doodling.
"I wish I was invited," she mumbled to herself. "Why do they hate me?"
Fortunately for her, this blatant exclusion was just pretend, part of a skit designed to teach kids how to identify and stop bullying.
Nationally, bullying has become a hot topic in recent years, fueled by the uncharted challenges of dealing with such behavior in cyberspace and a rash of suicides committed by teenagers who were allegedly tormented to the breaking point. Nonprofit groups have ramped up workshops on the subject, states have enacted anti-bullying laws and public schools have begun requiring character education.
But it wasn't until more recently that a handful of local Jewish agencies and day schools began experimenting with new programs targeted at bullying prevention.
"People think that Jewish schools have no problems," said Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, principal of Torah Academy. "It's true in that the extremes you would find in a secular school we have not seen here. But that doesn't mean we're not just as prone to kids making fun of other kids. Kids are kids."
And in a small school where the same group of children may be together from nursery school through eighth or even 12th grade, Jablon said, it might not be as easy to escape a bully.
Less Physical, Still Hurtful
In a Jewish setting, educators said, it's easier to pinpoint obvious bullies, and, of course, anti-Semitism isn't an issue. In reality, though, only a small percentage of bullying has to do with something as specific as race or religion, said Yeshiva University professor Rona Novick, a child psychologist with an extensive background in behavioral studies.
"Bullying is about power, it's about hurting people and making people feel out as opposed to in," said Novick.
The question is not whether bullying exists within Jewish crowds, said Novick, but how it differs from what's found in more diverse arenas, if it differs at all. Motivated both by personal interest and the fact that no one had researched that question before, Novick began reaching out to day schools three years ago. She's now working with about a dozen schools around the country, including Torah Academy in Wynnewood.
Though Novick hasn't published any data yet, she said the twice-annual surveys that participants have filled out so far indicate that Jewish schools have similar rates of bullying as public schools, though it tends to be less physical. Smaller schools in smaller towns have lower rates.
Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn't make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.
"It's worse for us because our cliques can't be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper," Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.
Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.
Some students at Torah Academy don't like other kids just because they have different customs, like they don't wear kippahs outside of school or they don't know how to speak Hebrew as well as others, said sixth-grader Zach Stein, 11.
Because day schools are so small, it's that much harder if someone doesn't fit into an existing niche, said Barrack junior Jeremy Rudoler, 16.
One of his teachers counted at least three gay students who left Barrack years ago because they felt they'd face less stigmatism in a larger public school.
Growing 'Brave' Leaders
Despite all those downsides to a small, homogenous population, educators say day schools have the distinct advantage of being able to use Judaism to address bullying.
"We talk about not idly standing by over the blood of others," said Jablon. "We need to teach that directly that when you see another child being emotionally harmed, you cannot turn away."
There's an assumption that "'well, we're a Torah-based school, of course we teach everybody to accept everybody else and tolerance,'" Novick said. "It's no easier to teach children to get along and to be friendly than it is to teach children to read, and it takes no less resources."
Unlike public schools, which might qualify for government funding to address mandated character education, private schools don't have the impetus to deal with such "luxury-ticket items," said Novick.
Compelled to show Jewish schools just how worthwhile bullying prevention could be, Novick developed a curriculum for fourth- to eighth-graders, modeled after best practices that bore positive results in public schools. Under the umbrella of a university institute, she offered the BRAVE program for a nominal fee to interested schools, adding Torah Academy to the mix last year.
Novick runs a couple of workshops in each school to introduce the curriculum and trains teachers to lead the rest -- generally, at least one program a month. To get parents involved, Novick sends home worksheets and invites them to at least one lesson. At Torah Academy, that happened last in late November, when the sixth-graders reconciled a bullying "incident" during a mock trial.
Novick said she hasn't collected enough data yet to prove the program is working, but teachers have already reported seeing more students stepping in when they see bullying happening, along with examples of less aggressive problem-solving. At the teachers' request, she recently expanded the program for elementary-school-age children. Even though bullying tends to peak in middle school, she said, the thinking was that it might not get so bad if kids learn from a young age to stand up for themselves and, even more importantly, for others.
"You don't change bullying in schools by focusing on bullies or the victims, you focus on bystanders," said Novick.
Speaking out on behalf of the one classmate whom everyone else is calling a loser, Novick said, is "exactly the same skill you use in high school when someone comes to you and says, 'Try this stuff, it's really good.' "
"We need bullying prevention not for what it eradicates, but for what it grows," said Novick. "When you successfully create a generation of bystanders that finds their voice, you do a lot more than eradicate bullying, you create social responsibility, you build leadership."
To Jablon, the program creates a kind of language throughout the school that makes it easier to recognize social imbalances of power that often go below the radar.
"A kid who gets beat up, that's very easy to see," he said. "But a kid who gets constantly told, 'I don't want to eat lunch with you,' that can be just as hurtful."
Parents also seem to be more attuned to what kind of behavior isn't appropriate, said Jablon.
"We don't have parents now who would say, 'But he didn't hit him, so what's the big deal?' or, 'He gets to choose his own friends,' or, 'Well, that's just part of growing up,' or 'Boys will be boys.' "
Prevention Through Puppets
The new bullying prevention program at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley starts as soon as kids graduate from nursery school. Through a partnership with Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Mercer County, guidance counselor Sue Kushner in October began visiting K-5 classrooms for a series of eight lessons on "Resolving Conflict Creatively."
Behavioral education hasn't changed much, Kushner said, it's just become clear in recent years that schools need to address it and do so from a young age.
"It doesn't matter what religion you are; it's a developmental issue," she said. "Kids are just learning how to deal with each other. You can't ignore that side of teaching kids."
As the lessons empower kids to solve conflicts on their own, Kushner said, they also establish a zero tolerance for bullying.
"It's not going to turn them into little angels, but we have a reference," said Kushner. "If someone goes up to someone and says something hurtful, we can reference this curriculum. That's got to make a difference."
On a recent Thursday, 14 boisterous second-graders crowded around a miniature puppet theater that Kushner had set up on one of the desks. Behind the red curtain, a cow and a pig fought over who would get to eat the last homemade cookie until both cookie and plate crashed to the floor. The kids strained their arms in the air, eager to shout out ideas for an alternate way to replay the scene.
From cookie fights to bullying seems like a bit of a stretch. But two fourth-grade girls said they had noticed a change in their class dynamics since Kushner began holding small group sessions with them. The girls used to fight a lot and didn't socialize at recess, said 10-year-old Maya Pur.
She and Rachel Reydler, 9, also credited Kushner for getting the entire class involved in soothing tensions between two boys who would often go after each other when teachers weren't around. At Kushner's suggestion, friends of each boy now make a kind of "human shield" to keep them separated while they're walking in the hall.
In addition to the classroom lessons, Kushner serves as a liaison among school staff, parents and students when a bullying issue needs to be addressed. There have been two so far this year -- one involved cyberbullying, Kushner said -- though she declined to give details to protect students' privacy.
New Workshops for the Times
Even supplemental schools have begun to broach bullying through workshops and teacher trainings.
For the first time this year, Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit, added dealing with "relational aggression" to a summer training institute for 130 Jewish educators from around the country.
The fact that the topic even needs to be addressed seems a little shocking to the Jewish community "because we like to see our community as a place where kids can escape from the outside," said Melissa Spann, who oversees a popular Jewish education program for girls that the agency developed. "When bullying comes up, somehow we feel like our kids would be very immune to it, but they're not, it's very real to them."
At the same time, Spann said, it's hard to say just how bad the problem is.
"We hear about when a kid brings a gun to the school because that is over the top," she said. "The media's not alerted when a girl's crying in her room night after night because everyone's so mean to her."
Rabbi Daniel Aronson, director of congregational learning at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, said he has yet to hear of any bullying at his religious school. Still, he said, with so much national media attention, he felt "an obligation to bring the values of Judaism to bear" on the topic. He hired experts from Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia to lead bullying workshops twice over the past two years.
"We're not just teaching them holidays or stories from the Torah, we're teaching them how Judaism can benefit them in life," explained Aronson. "We have a unique opportunity to infuse the discussion with issues of faith and ethics in a way" that public schools can't.
While JFCS has given presentations on bullying and derek eretz ("proper conduct") for some time, the agency added a new spin on the topic this year with a workshop on how Jewish text reinforces the consequences of defamatory speech online.
The agency hasn't heard complaints about cyberbullying among Jewish kids, but it's hard to imagine that it's not happening, said Sara Wenger, assistant director of Education and Outreach Services at the agency. More likely, Wenger speculated, sharing photos and comments electronicly has become so normal that kids don't even realize "how malicious the consequences of their actions could be."
Susan Levey, education director at Congregation Beth David in Gladwyne, said the workshop came out just after five or six students in the religious school talked to their teachers about hurtful Facebook comments. Even though the incidents happened outside of religious school, where better to teach kids how to handle something so important, Levey asked.
"If it's happening in their 'real school,' I need to be able to address the issues delicately and with Jewish wisdom so that these kids and the parents and the congregation at large know that it's safe here," said Levey.
Even though it's already a struggle to pack Hebrew and prayers into the few hours students spend in class, if religious schools can teach Bible through "something that speaks to the children in the here and now, then you're accomplishing everything you need to do," Levey said. Levey said she'd bring in JFCS workshops for every grade if she could, but at $225 a pop, she's only had the budget for one or two each year.
At Barrack, Jewish-studies teacher Sunnie Epstein said she occassionally hears from students who feel ostracized, but the atmosphere seems to have become more open in recent years. One of the biggest turning points, she said, dates back about eight years, when she and two other faculty members started a gay-straight student alliance. Just having a group like that says a lot about an institution, said Epstein.
In addition to the alliance, Epstein incorporated clips from the documentary, "Trembling Before God," about gay Orthodox Jews, in some of her classes. At the first screening, she said, five Orthodox boys refused to enter the room until she insisted. At the end, she said, most of them were still grumbling, but one thanked her for a life-changing experience.
"We're not saying you should stop believing what you believe," Epstein said, but respect and acceptance is non-negotiable.
Soon, said Epstein, she'll pilot an entire ethics unit on how Jews address homosexuality.
For the past three years, Barrack has also sent juniors to an annual ADL conference on tolerance.
This spring, ADL will host a related conference on cyberbullying, which will be open to teachers and students, said Lisa Friedlander, who oversees an anti-hate program in high schools throughout the region.
"People are always going to have the tendency to do and say hurtful things," said Friedlander. But "the more students, the more allies that intervene, the behaviors, the culture, shifts. No place will ever be free of hate, but it's a goal we're constantly working toward."