Bullying: What We Do Does Matter

ImageThe ongoing tragedy of lives of young victims being lost to suicide breaks our hearts. The only very tiny silver lining is this: it demands that we, the grownups, take bullying seriously and to do whatever needs to be done to make the world safer for our kids.

The Orlando Sentinel has done surprisingly well in examining the issue, but not always with success.  Columnist Leslie Postal recently suggested that we overuse and misuse the word Bully. At one level she’s right, but fundamentally most of us understand that it’s not gentle teasing, it’s not the right word to complain about your brother taking the last cupcake, and it’s not about kids calling their teacher a rude name behind her back.

Bullying is repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. As writer Emily Brazelon explains, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him or her miserable.

We understand the concern that a zero tolerance policy can backfire, and that mislabeling ordinary conflict as bullying clouds the issue. At the same time, one of the most harmful things a teacher or parent can do is to try to minimize the discomfort of a child who feels targeted or rejected by peers.

“Just ignore it” is useless advice. Prompting the child to believe that some level of cruelty is acceptable isn’t a good strategy. Asking the child to use another word instead of “bullying” doesn’t diminish the pain.

Columnist Darryl Owens is a bit more on target, reminding parents of young bullies that they can – and must – intervene by taking away computers and phones, monitoring their child’s activities better, and stepping up whenever and however good parenting requires it. But, as Owens notes, determined teens quickly find workarounds to every rule and every restriction.

Neither columnist talked about the single greatest strategy to reduce bullying– the power of peer pressure and peer advocates. In the middle of the struggle between bully and victim there are dozens of bystanders who might be able to make a difference if they had the insight, strategies and courage to intervene.

We cannot fully protect any child from hurt feelings and upsetting experiences. But we can teach our children to notice when someone else is feeling left out, to reach out in kindness when a classmate is being taunted, and to use their power to speak up on behalf of others.

That is the core of the Holocaust Center’s UpStanders: Stand Up To Bullying initiative. It’s a central lesson of the Holocaust, where a few brave rescuers were willing to save the lives of Jews in spite of the risk to their own safety and comfort. It’s the Golden Rule. It’s what we want our kids to learn young and carry into adulthood. Whether you call it bullying or just plain unkindness, we want our kids to know that it’s wrong, and that people who perpetuate these acts of unkindness should be answerable for their actions.

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Responding to Syria

As we approach the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht this November, we point to the world’s lack of response to the destruction, assaults and deaths of that night. What might have happened if the aggression against Jewish home, shops and communities had been met with a more vigorous response from other nations? Might Hitler have been thwarted if the destruction of his nation’s Jews been challenged strongly and swiftly?

After the Holocaust we made a promise of Never Again, a promise that we have too often failed to keep. In Rwanda, in Darfur, in the Congo, and in other nations, ethic and religious communities have been under deadly assault. This week we are again witnessing the unacceptable loss of lives in Syria.

In response to the situation in Syria, the Executive Committee of the Board has released this statement: The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida strongly deplores and condemns the use of chemical weapons against any group involved in the hostilities in Syria, including but not limited to the Syrian government.

The Center cannot advocate any political position. Like other individuals and organizations, it lacks concrete, verifiable information about who ultimately bears responsibility for ordering the use of chemical weapons. Like others, we are not suggesting any particular action by any nation, including our own.

We simply believe that a fundamental part of our mission is to stand up on behalf of those who have no power to advocate for themselves, and to ask leaders around the world to wage peace in every way they can.


A Tribute to A Survivor

The Holocaust Center recently honored survivor Helen Greenspun at its annual Dinner of Tribute. She was presented with a crystal rose — a reminder of the extraordinary courage of young German students in protesting against Nazi cruelty — as part of the event.

The Holocaust Center’s Resource Teacher, Mitchell Bloomer, spoke about his relationship with Helen and the impact she has had on the community. We are sharing his remarks here:

Good evening!  My name is Mitchell Bloomer.  For the past 18 years, I’ve been the teacher at the Holocaust Center.  I represent the Center and the Orange County Public School system.  For all of those 18 years (plus a few more) I have been privileged to know Helen Greenspun – as a Holocaust survivor, but also as my friend.  For more than 30 years, Helen has been telling her story in our Center and in schools across Central Florida and beyond.  Tens of thousands of students know about and remember the Holocaust because they heard about it from her.  Many of those students from the early years are now parents with children of their own and some of those have learned from Helen as well. 

But Helen’s legacy goes far beyond spreading knowledge.  Young people who have heard Helen’s testimony don’t just know about the Holocaust … they also care.  They care because they’ve done more than just meet a Holocaust survivor; they’ve also met a wonderful, caring and giving person.  I have been with Helen for many of her presentations and I wish that I could share with you the instant bond of affection that many of these kids make with her.  You’d have to see it for yourself.  I think that they must understand how difficult it is for a survivor to re-enter the memory of this terrible past and realize what a sacrifice Helen makes every time she speaks.  In spite of the difficulty, she is always warm and open with the students, willing to answer their questions and even to pose with them for photographs afterward.


Helen Greenspun and Mitchell Bloomer
Dinner of Tribute – April 17, 2013


I remember one time that we went together to Timber Creek High School to participate in a Holocaust commemoration event.  The staff there had planned a full program.  The main part was to have Helen speak to about 800 students in their performing arts auditorium.  Since this was to be such a large event, it required detailed planning and precise timing.  When we arrived, we were greeted by a team of administrators, teachers and about a dozen student assistants who were on hand to run errands and take care of any last-minute needs.  There were two chairs on the stage… one for me and one for Helen.  As Helen took her place, I went over to the teachers to make sure that everything was ready to go.  I could only have been gone for a minute or two, but let me tell you what I saw when I turned back around…  All of the student assistants, the ones who were supposed to be running errands, had taken seats on the floor in a semi-circle around Helen and were deep in conversation with her.  What could I say?… They had made the right choice.

Helen’s legacy goes beyond the impact that she has had in our schools.  Everyone who knows her has been touched by her life.  For me, I owe Helen an enormous debt of gratitude.  I’ve been studying the Holocaust since the late 1980’s.  I’ve had the chance to learn from some of the greatest experts in the field and in some of the actual places where these events occurred, but Helen has helped me to keep it all in perspective.  It’s our friendship that reminds me that the Holocaust is not so much about the specific crimes that were committed as it is about the people to whom these things were done.

I remember one day very clearly…  I had stopped by to visit Helen at home and, of course, she invited me in.  We got to talking and, after awhile, I realized that neither of us had said one word about the Holocaust.  We talked about our families and our mutual friends.  We discussed events that were current in the news.  We even talked about the books we were reading and the programs we watch on TV.  In other words, I was, in that situation, exactly as I am with my all of my other friends.  …And, isn’t this the essential truth about the victims of the Holocaust, both those who perished and those who survived – that they were and are people just like everyone else – people who embrace life – with family and community, with religion and culture, with hopes and dreams and accomplishments – and they have given us a legacy worthy of remembrance.

We thank you Helen, for your willingness to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves – to be their voice.  We also thank you that through your kindness you have shown us, not only how lucky we are to know you, but also how much we have missed by not having known others; how much we would have liked to have known your sister Rachel and your baby brother Fishel – they would have grown up to be wonderful people.  We know this because we know you – and their memory lives on in this world because of you.  Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to meet your parents Kalman and Sarah, but we know something of them because their legacy lives on in you – and in your children – and your grandchildren.


We thank you for sharing the richness of your life with us and we are delighted to honor you this evening!



Kristallnacht belong…..

By James Coffin

Years ago my work took me occasionally to various South Pacific islands where Pidgin English is the lingua franca. Because Pidgin is missing such possessive pronouns as “my,” “your” and “our,” it has a simple-but-effective linguistic structure to show “ownership.”

To designate who faces a problem, for example, the sentence structure would be: “Problem belong me.” Or “problem belong John.” I love the cadence. But speaking of problems, let me mention one.

When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, the onlooking world soon saw disquieting signs that hinted at state-sponsored hatred toward certain groups, especially the Jews. Where was it all heading?

When on November 9-10, 1938, mobs swarmed the streets, destroying some 7,500 Jewish places of business, vandalizing and/or torching 267 synagogues and killing 91 Jews, there was no longer any ambiguity concerning the intentions of the Nazi regime.

But–and here’s what’s staggering–the atrocities of Nazi Germany weren’t committed by society’s riffraff. They were committed by educated, genteel, affluent, church-going, family-loving people who look just like you and I do. And that’s what should jolt us.

Some six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust that ensued, not including the Gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped and others the state wished to be rid of. Nor does it include the tens of millions killed as a result of World War II itself.

ImageJews believe we need to remember how this happened–because, as George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So every year the Holocaust Center (851 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751) hosts a Kristallnacht Remembrance. This year it will be held at 4:00 pm on Sunday, November 4. It’s open to everyone, and no admission is charged.

I’m not Jewish. Nor, to my knowledge, were any of my ancestors. Nor is my wife. And the overwhelming majority of Central Floridians aren’t Jewish, either. So it would be easy for most of us to simply say, “Problem belong them.” But we’d be wrong. The reality is: “This problem belong everybody.”

So let’s take decisive steps to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Jew and non-Jew alike need to be reminded of what can happen when run-of-the-mill humans succumb to propaganda and a message of hate. I repeat: “This problem belong everybody.”

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Thimbleful of Truth, Bucketful of Balderdash

By James Coffin

Mark Twain contended that there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics.” I’d suggest that the three could also be: lies, damned lies and cliches.

Cliches are succinct, pithy summaries that appear to have cleverly captured the essence of an issue. They imply that last word has been said. Counter arguments would be futile. No need for further discussion. QED.

Unfortunately, cliches become beliefs. Beliefs lead to actions. And if the original assertion was off the beam, the resultant actions may be devastating. Let me cite an example.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the 32nd President of the United States, made a statement that people have fawned over since it first escaped her lips: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Certainly, parents need to help their children learn to shrug off, as much as possible, life’s slings and arrows, insults and putdowns. It’s not a gentle world out there. Not even for adults. So learning not to wear our feelings on our sleeves is an important lesson in real-world survival. This is where the thimbleful of truth in Mrs. Roosevelt’s cliche comes into its own.

The problem is, in today’s world the emotional/psychological assaults faced by many young people–and even by many more adults than we’d like to believe–are intense, incessant and inescapable. Someone would have to be truly super-human not to be dragged down by such an unrelenting onslaught. And often from such a large number of assailants.

As if the taunts and jeers of the bullies haven’t been bad enough, the dismissal by the smug-and-preachy crowd adds to the pain. It “re-victimizes the victim,” as those who understand the issue of bullying describe it.

The original taunts centered on the alleged flaws of the victim. And the purveyors of advice likewise highlight the victim’s alleged flaws. In essence they say, “You’re really the problem. A strong person, a worthy person, would be able to withstand such onslaughts and not be fazed. Remember, ‘no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”

If Mrs. Roosevelt’s much-quoted cliche is true, there’s no such thing as bullying or abuse. There are only strong and knowledgeable people or weak and stupid people. Based on her statement, the problem isn’t really the perpetrators; the problem lies in the inability of the recipients to withstand whatever life’s villains happen to dish out.

I’d suggest that even the most insensitive among us should recognize Mrs. Roosevelt’s cliche as the destructive bucketful of balderdash that it is.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Responding to Intolerance

Not many hours after the horrifying assault in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin there was a breath-catching post on Facebook:

“I was going to try to explain the difference between Sikh and Muslim, but then decided that you don’t need to know the difference. You just need to know that you don’t shoot either of them.”

If the early commentators are right – and I suspect they are – the Sikhs were the innocent victims of anti-Muslim hatred. As one shocked witness said, “they see our turbans, and they hate us.”

But would it really have been different, more justifiable, if it really had been murders in a mosque? Wouldn’t Muslims be, equally, the innocent victims of anti-Muslim hatred?

The reality is that we, as a society, are not comfortable with diversity. We worry about people who wear turbans and people who eat ‘strange things’ and people whose language isn’t the one we speak.

This discomfort is increased every time there is a news story about a crime and the suspect looks like “one of those people.” Add to that the hate groups – folks whose websites, speeches and posters keep their followers in a constant state of battle-readiness – it should not surprise us when the pressure cooker explodes.

Most of us recognize the potential for further tragedy, and want to do something. Can we just grab hands and sing Kumbaya?  Maybe dig out that old tie-dye T-shirt with the great peace sign? Pray more? Read more? Worry more?

Unfortunately, creating peace requires work – sometimes hard work – and sacrifice. It requires supporting others who are actively involved in interfaith outreach. It depends on each of us taking risks to defend others. Intolerance will live in our community as long as we allow it.

There are opportunities to get involved though many local churches and organizations. The Interfaith Council of Central Florida  is a good place to start. Consider joining them for an evening of solidarity  7:00 pm Thursday, August 16 at Sikh Gurdwara (Temple) 2527 West SR 426 (Aloma Ave) Oviedo, FL 32765. People from Central Florida’s many faith traditions plan to come together with the Sikh community in this time of national sorrow.

It’s been 250 years since Edmund Burke warned that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It has been 65 years since the end of Hitler’s reign, and we began to say “never again”.  We owe the world, and future generations, our efforts to challenge intolerance and discrimination wherever and whenever we find it.  Peace begins with each of us, but only when we accept the challenge.

Tolerance (I Don’t Like That Word) Education?

I’ve been told that there are about a quarter of a million words in the English language. Most of us know (or at least could guess correctly) a large number of them.

Given that stunning mathematical fact, why are we so stuck when it comes to describing how well we accept, respect, and welcome people – especially people who are noticeably different than us? We shrug and say “tolerate” and quickly add “not that I particularly like that word….”

And we shouldn’t like it. My handy-dandy default Google dictionary says:

TOLERATE (verb) Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with without interference.

Accept or endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with forbearance.

Of course, there are some other ways to use the word that aren’t quite so hostile. Merriam-Webster assures us that it can also mean “to recognize and respect the rights, beliefs, or practices of others”. That’s what we mean to say, but somehow the word—even when we mean it in the spirit of generosity and love – comes out sounding like the I’m-enduring-something-I-don’t-like definition.

If you’re an engineer, it has a very specific meaning: it’s how different something can be without causing a problem. As long as everything is within tolerance (not too hot or too cold, not too big or too little, not too wet or too dry) things will turn out OK.  Unfortunately, that’s about the depth of “tolerance” in many situations. I’ll let you be a little different, but don’t go overboard, OK?

My pharmacist uses the word tolerance to talk about how I need larger doses of something to get the same effect. Meaning, perhaps, that if I am uncomfortable with you because of what you eat/wear/worship, over time it will take more differences to make me uncomfortable. Interesting theory…maybe that’s what tolerance should strive for. Pardon me if this doesn’t sound at all polite, but if you just hang around I’ll get used to you little by little. Eventually I might become completely immune to the differences and they won’t matter.

On the other hand, the best definition I’ve heard, from our resource teacher Mitchell Bloomer, is that the point of “tolerance education” is to learn to tolerate our own discomfort.  Once we acknowledge our uneasiness, and recognize where those feelings originate, we can be better able to deal with others who are not like us. I’m hoping that sometime that’s the first definition in my Google dictionary.

In the meantime, we’re using words that almost work. We have a Dinner of Tribute coming up on April 25. The theme is RESPECT, our way of talking about the underpinnings of responsible, loving behavior toward others.  That gets us about three-quarters the way around the issue, but we need to do better.

Therefore, I am announcing a private contest. What word can we use instead of tolerance? Write me a quick essay. I might not even judge them. No prizes except a thank-you note. Email me you thoughts or post them here. I’m anxious to hear what you suggest.


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