This past week I read of the story of Denis Estimon of Boca Raton Community High School. He remembers what it was like when he was a freshman and a new immigrant from Haiti. He felt lonely and isolated at lunch. “It’s not a good feeling, like you’re by yourself. And that’s something that I don’t want anybody to go through,” said Denis. Now that Denis is a senior, and considered part of the popular group, he started a club called “We Dine Together” to make sure that no student has to sit alone at lunchtime. Members of the “We Dine Together” club seek out those who are alone, strike up a conversation and invite them to sit. “The club has sparked hundreds of unlikely friendships since it formed last fall, and jocks and geeks now sit side by side.”
This story brought to mind another current event that we shared with our sixth graders in Advisory. In Hardin County, Kentucky they initiated the “Buddy Bench” program during recess. They found that some kids were alone during recess. There came the idea of the “buddy bench”- actually initiated originally by a 2nd grader! “If you are sitting on the bench …You are looking for a friend. When someone asks you to play, join them, and always remember to glance over at the school's Buddy Bench to invite new friends to join in on the fun.” If you are not sitting on the bench …Ask your classmate on the friendship bench to play, and make a new friend today! Keep growing your circle of friends until everyone has someone to play with. :)” Although this concept might sound like it’s meant for younger children, the idea was one we presented to our sixth graders. We wanted them to focus on- what are they doing to notice those who are excluded?
How many of our children are looking to see who is left out during lunch or recess? A familiar theme, as you have read in my column before. But, I could not pass up the opportunity to mention it again, as I read of Estimon’s story.
As we begin our Pesach preparations, (I vacuumed under one bed today!), Pesach is the holiday of “We Dine Together” “Kol Dichfin Yesei V’Yeichal; Kol Ditzrich Yesei V’Yifsach.” “All who are hungry let them come and eat; all who are in need, let them come and celebrate Pesach,” as it says in the Haggadah. And, we know there is a Mitzvah to count others into a single Korban Pesach- a Chabura. Even though one may bring and eat the Korban Pesach alone - one should do so with a group. This is the message of Vayikra 25:36, ”V’chai achicha imach” – your fellow shall live with you. This is the message of inclusion.
We know how Judaism feels about the importance of making sure that people are not alone. Rabbi Yossie Ives points this out in regards to the death of a stranger on the road. In Devarim 21:4 it states that if a person is found dead on the road and it is not possible to discover the cause of death, then the elders of the nearest town need to enact a ceremony of penance in which they declare “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Upon this the Gemara in Sotah 45b: “Does anyone really think that the Elders of the Beth Din were murderers? Rather, for them perhaps not having left him without provisions or not having accompanied him along the way.” He was left alone, which made him more vulnerable.
Our next unit in Advisory with our sixth graders includes the topic of popularity. Who is popular? What makes someone a leader? It is clear that in Judaism, a leader is chosen based on how he ensures that everyone is included and cared for. Moshe, the leader of the Pesach story, begins his path to greatness when Hashem witnessed how he cared for a lonely stray sheep. (Shemot Rabba 2:2). “ Moshe was shepherding his father-in-laws' sheep one day, when one of them bolted. Moshe followed the runaway animal until it reached a body of water where it stopped for a drink. Moshe compassionately said to the sheep, ‘If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running…’ Saying this, he scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders, and headed back to his flock. Said God: ‘If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd mine…’”
At the seder was pray “L’shana habaa b’Yerushalayim.” What will bring the redemption? We know that even the actual destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was the result of a story of exclusion, The destruction of Jerusalem came through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “You tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out”. Said the other: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He refused. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. He refused. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still declined, and he took him by the hand and put him out. “( Gittin 55b) The pain of being excluded led to his reporting on the Jews and led to the destruction.
One in six children report being victims of social exclusion. Although it relates to all ages, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to feeling excluded and feeling rejected by peers. During this time period, children typically become increasingly independent from their parents and more dependent on their peer group. Their identities are formed in relation to their peer groups. Therefore, the experience of not being a part of group is so much more traumatic. “Studies on the neurological profile of children suggest that their brain areas for emotion become more activated in response to peer rejection with age, and peek at adolescence” (Bolling, Pitskel, Deen, Crowley, Mayes & Pelphrey, 2011). Students who are excluded have lower immune function, reduced sleep quality, difficulty calming themselves down when distressed, reduced self-esteem, increased anxiety and increased depression.
These children are “hungry” and they are waiting to be invitee to come and eat- literally and metaphorically. We need to make sure that all who are hungry can come and eat. We need to dine together. We need to make sure whoever is on the buddy bench is invited. As parents this is a message we need to stress with our children and model for them.
Sixth Grade- Students began a unit on Friendship discussing “What qualities make a good friend?’
Seventh Grade- Students learned about positive self-talk and upbeat thinking in developing resiliency.
Eighth grade- A discussion about stereotyping was begun