Rabbi Yergin's Inspiration Blog

92nd Street Y – New Year Greeting

To My Ex-Best Friend

Social Media and Atonement

5777 HHD Sermon

High Holy Day Morning Sermon

5777 – 2016

In 5th grade I started a club named “I hate Alyssa.” A club without meetings or a budget, without official membership, but a club whose title was meant to hurt one of my classmates. She was athletic, pretty, intellectual, perky, and feminine. Alyssa and I had been sort of pitted against each other by our teachers and parents – competing academically. The club allowed me to feel like I had the leg up – moving the focus away from academics and onto social status.

By today’s standards, this would likely be labeled as bullying.  But what is bullying, exactly? In the Texas Education Code for Bullying Prevention Policies and Procedures, bullying is defined as “engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct…AND that has the effect …of physically harming a student, damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student’s property OR [if the conduct] is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat causes an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student. [The] conduct is …considered bullying if [it] exploits an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim and interferes with a student’s education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.” Did you follow that? I had trouble. This is a definition that could describe many different situations, on scales both large and small.

For centuries, bullying has by and large been considered a fact of life. Now, however, we seem to have a bullying epidemic on our hands – we see it all over the place. It induces panic, fear, concern, and a feeling of helplessness. “Bullying has emerged as one of the biggest problems facing our nation’s schools to date, but this is largely due to increased awareness and sensitivity about the consequences of being victimized. The media has created a sense of urgency around bullying, and parents are desperate to protect their children.”[1] “But bullying, wherever it takes place, isn’t on the rise. It feels more pervasive only because the Web is pervasive.”[2] Many people point fingers at the internet and social media as the culprit for bullying – bringing about the term “cyberbullying” – a term that does not have an agreed upon definition.

The panic that cyberbullying has caused makes sense. The internet and social media create an unavoidable, constant connection to the outside world. A connection that gives a false sense of privacy when, in reality, social media posts have the ability to “go viral” – just like bacteria, a far-reaching and rapid spread of harmful material. Cyberbullying is a large facet of the bullying epidemic today, however, it is important to recognize that “the way kids treat each other on the Internet is merely an extension of the way they treat each other in person. The depersonalized features of technology can exacerbate the cruelty, but its roots are in the real world rather than the virtual one.”[3]

Now, this is the time when many anti-bullying speakers would give tips for children to stop bullying. However, in my mind, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed; adults play a crucial role in bullying. Adults are the ones raising bullying to an epidemic – a pandemonium that hurts rather than helps all involved. It is imperative that we, as adults, pause, be realistic, take a step back, and watch our own actions.

If the “I hate Alyssa” club had been formed in today’s society, and Alyssa went home and told her parents, I’m sure both sets of parents and the school would be involved and there would be a mad panic. Alyssa’s family would be negative towards me, labeling me a bully and Aly a victim, while my family would be defensive. As the situation escalated, I might be suspended – forever scarred by the situation, seeing myself as a failure and a bad person who could never redeem herself. Alyssa would also be forever scarred – perpetually seeing herself on the outskirts of groups, potentially withdrawing into herself and losing her own self-esteem.

This really isn’t an exaggerated description for a situation like this today. We have to be rational and take the time to see the full situation – all sides. In Talmud,[4] there is a Midrash about why the sun and moon are different sizes. The moon said to G-d: “Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?” G-d replied: “Go and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe,” she said to Him, “because I made a proper claim before You, am I to make myself smaller?”…On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” In commenting on this story[5], Chana Weisberg, a contemporary author and educator, explains that God is saying: “I see your tears. I hear your cries. I empathize with your pain. And despite its necessity, because I diminished you in size, and put you through the suffering of inequality, I will bring an atonement offering.” Weisberg is showing that God, as a parent, is listening to the child, but not immediately running to the moon’s rescue and coddling it. Instead, the moon has to learn its own value and find the “potential for growth through [its] rises and declines….” This Midrash teaches us that we must let children learn on their own. That is not to say that we ignore them or tell them to brush it off, in fact, the opposite. We must listen, but we cannot be reactive. By maintaining a level head and being calm, we teach our children how to maintain their sense of self and how to develop their problem solving skills.

I recognize that this is easier said than done. We tend to want to jump in and fix everything. We rush to defend our children because seeing them in pain is painful for us. “Helicopter” parents “inhibit the ability of children to develop good conflict-resolution skills. Ironically, in trying to protect them, we may actually set them up for future harm if we rescue them every time their feelings get hurt.”[6] Think of the times in your life when you changed the most. Were they easy? Quick? In most cases, no. They were painful and difficult, but helped create who you have become. It is important that we distinguish between normal, social conflict and bullying – reminding “ourselves of the characteristics of bullying: a repetitive, unwanted attack in the context of a power imbalance.”[7] We should be supporters and advocates for our children, not rescuers.

In order to be true advocates, we have to understand the full situation. While discussing bullying, Rabbi Edie Mencher reminds us of “a Chasidic teaching that asks ‘What might we find if we could see within the heart of evil? The answer: A crying baby.’ As the 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.”[8] Too often, we see the bad and cannot think about the other factors involved. As adults, we are quick to speak up about injustice when it involves our kids. Everyone worries about their child being hurt by an aggressor, but not about the reverse scenario — when our child is the aggressor. We have to take a step back and see the full situation. “It starts with examining our behavior as parents and role models. We can have a huge impact on how our children act, simply by being aware of the subtle messages we send through our conversations and body language, through our parenting styles and home environments, because children learn about social relationships at home.”[9]

We complain that our children are glued to their phones and devices, but are we any better? We are lowering the standards for the digital community by sending mean, gossipy texts and posting derogatory comments.[10] Our kids see this. How many times do we see young children with their parents’ phones in a restaurant – playing a game or watching a movie? What happens when a text message flashes across the screen from another adult making fun of someone’s newest picture on facebook or Instagram? The child sees that and may even click to further investigate the conversation that has happened previously. They might see their parents are the ones starting mean conversations and/or laughing at the cruel comments of others. “We have to step back and analyze our own culpability in creating a culture that has fostered attitudes of entitlement and condescension toward those who are different. It is uncomfortable to explore our own secret inconsistencies and stereotypes”[11] but we must do it.

One of the inconsistencies we encounter in this bullying epidemic is our propensity to label others. Labels have become the easy way to describe behavior, but we get caught up in letting that behavior define one’s identity. We have all bullied, been victimized, stood quietly looking on, stood up for others, but as soon as we are labeled as a bully, a victim, a bystander, or an ally – it becomes our identity. One of my favorite Midrashim says that “In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by his father and mother; one is the name people call him; and one is the name he acquires for himself.” The Midrash concludes by saying that “the best one is the one he acquires for himself.”[12] Normally, I love this text, but thinking about this in the context of today’s society, it worries me. By using labels, we see how others, including parents, are influencing the way a child sees his or herself. If a child is called a bully often enough, will it get into their head so much that they believe they are a bully and cannot change? If a child is called a victim by adults around them, will they lose their sense of self and become dependent on others for everything? “Trudy Ludwig, an activist and bestselling author of anti-bullying books, [explains] bullying behavior without labeling the perpetrators as bullies. ‘I say that they put on a ‘bully hat,’ and they act like a bully while wearing the bully hat. But this means that they can take the hat off and change.’”[13] It is important to remember that people have the capacity for empathy and it is our job as adults to nourish and encourage that thinking and behavior in children so that they can recognize it in themselves.

I am so glad that the “I hate Alyssa” club happened in a non-bullying crazed world. The club died out in a matter of months with little to no damage done to anyone involved. How do I know that? Because Alyssa is one of my best friends. Our lives changed in junior high as we became inseparable. In high school we drifted apart a little bit because we didn’t have classes together and our extra-curricular activities didn’t overlap. In college we rekindled our friendship, even though we were across the country. After college, we stayed in touch, traveled together, and visited each other. In the past two years, she and I stood up in each other’s wedding. My friendship with Aly is one of my most cherished, longest-lasting friendships. I know that if the adults around us had taken charge of that situation years ago, I wouldn’t have this relationship with Aly. Instead, the adults realized that we were teenage girls, and that the behavior was not threatening, repetitive or taking advantage of an imbalance of power. I am not a bully, but at that point, I was wearing the bully hat. However, I eventually took it off and learned from it.

This year, as we watch the world around us move at lightning speed, let’s remember not to get caught up in a harmful bullying panic. Take a breath, take a step back, and evaluate the situation. Let us be aware of our actions, how children perceive them, and remember that children take behavioral cues from us. Let us be supporters of our children, not rescuers waiting to swoop in to take away the slightest bit of emotional pain. Let us find the strength to have open, honest conversations with our youth. Let us change the culture of bullying by making positive changes within ourselves. Let us be an inspiration to those around us. Let us make our homes, our schools, Temple Beth-El, and all places into warm, inviting environments that allow for us to have honest, respectful interactions with ourselves and with those around us. Let us stop feeling helpless about bullying behavior. Let us take a cue from Ghandi and “be the change we want to see in the world.”

Shana Tovah u’metukah.




[1] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[2] Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House, Inc.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chullin 60b


[6] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Atkins, D., & Mencher, R. E. (2010, Winter). Behind Bullying. (A. Hirt-Manheimer, Interviewer) Reform Judaism Magazine.

[9] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Midrash Tanchuma

[13] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

Holocaust Ponar Tunnel, Lithuania

Religion and Science – Who is God?

Not only do I adore Mayim Bialik, but this is phenomenal!



Retirement is NOT full-time parenting

I’m Tired of People Thinking I ‘Retired’ from My Job as a Rabbi Because I’m a Mom

Summer Camp Lessons


Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑