Rabbi Burg Op-Ed: “Bullying and the House of Horrors”

18 Apr 2012

By Rabbi Steven Burg
Orthodox Union Managing Director and International Director of NCSY | Jewish Youth Leadership

The shocking news came over the Passover holiday. Five young men, all Jews, were found in a basement, bound together nearly naked, covered in welts and smeared with honey, hot sauce and flour. When they were rescued, the victims were shivering and described as having “horrified and fearful looks on their faces.” Where was this house of horrors? Was it an Iraqi torture chamber? A Hamas prison? No, it was Boston, in the house of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity at Boston University. The victims, by the way, were only discovered because police were responding to a noise complaint.

There is so much that is unthinkable about this story. The fact that it happened at all is staggering, of course, but that an organization described as a “Jewish fraternity” was responsible is astonishing and beyond unacceptable. (It may have been a “fraternity of Jews” but there is nothing Jewish in such behavior.) It bears mentioning that the national organization of AEPi did close this particular chapter, which had no official affiliation with Boston University. I commend them for taking appropriate action in the wake of such grievous misbehavior.
Many people have overlooked this incident as “just typical college hazing.” Such justification is actually part of the problem. When people can hear of such abuse then shrug their shoulders and say that “boys will be boys,” it demonstrates how much we continue to accept bullying while simultaneously decrying it. Despite some very big news stories of the past year, many people still have goggles on that contextualize bullying solely as larger children taking lunch money from smaller children. Post-Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who was literally bullied to death, we have no excuses not to recognize that bullying comes in many forms.

Yes, bigger children picking on smaller children is a problem but in today’s society, cyberbullying is rampant. Teens and even pre-teens can now bully their peers long-distance and in front of exponentially larger audiences. Hazing is another form of bullying. Our college students may voluntarily pledge fraternities and sororities but what occurs to them in the process often goes far beyond good-natured pranks. Many universities and Greek organizations have adopted strict anti-hazing policies, which is important. These policies, however, are largely ignored by fraternities until something happens that brings such non-compliance to light. In the past year, “something happened” to George Desdunes at Cornell University and to Will Torrance at Vincennes University. In separate incidents, each of these young men was pressured to drink himself to death as part of a fraternity initiation.

Happily, the Boston University incident did not result in any deaths but it is nonetheless tragic, especially for the students traumatized by the experience. That this involved Jews, especially over Passover, is particularly painful in that it goes completely counter to the lessons we are meant to internalize. Look at Moses, the greatest of all prophets, who was selected by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. The Midrash tells us how Moses discovered the burning bush while he was carrying a stray sheep back to the flock. It was not great strength that qualified him as a leader, nor a sharp mind, good looks or personal wealth. It was his great compassion for the smallest and weakest among his charges that made Moses fit to lead the nation. The Moses who threw away life in Pharaoh’s palace and became a fugitive in order to save a fellow Jew from a taskmaster’s beating was best suited to become Moses the Lawgiver.

We have to look out for one another. Along these lines, I applaud BBYO, which recently partnered with The Bully Project, creators of the documentary “Bully,” in order to make this important film available to Jewish teens and their parents nationwide. They have also developed a discussion guide for use in conjunction with the film. This is exactly the kind of sensitivity we need to develop.

NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, has long had anti-bullying policies in place. Following the Tyler Clementi tragedy, we composed a formal anti-bullying curriculum that was unveiled and lauded by colleagues at YouthCon, our conference for informal and experiential Jewish educators. I know how strongly those who work with youth feel on this issue, which is why I find it so disheartening to encounter apathy on the part of the general community. The fact that so many people were able to miss this story says volumes.

We must be proactive in educating not only our youth but also adults throughout the Jewish community that bullying comes in many forms. Whether it’s in the hallways of a school, the basement of a frat house or the pews of a synagogue, we must foster an atmosphere of compassion and never tolerate violence, intimidation or other forms of abuse. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel in Pirkei Avot, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?

OU | Enhancing Jewish Life