Michael D. Cohen
Michael D. Cohen

Don’t be Afraid of ‘13 Reasons Why’

Every so often my wife hears about the latest hot show trending on Netflix, and somehow we find the few hours we need on a weekend to binge-watch over Shabbat leftovers. Our latest Saturday evening interlude, however, took on a more serious nature. Between the five children whom we are blessed to raise, and my wife’s interactions with children through her longtime position with the New York City Department of Education, we heard many parental concerns about a new mini-series, called “13 Reasons Why.”

The show demonstrates the devastating impact bullying can have on a child by telling a teenage girl’s harrowing story of victimization, which led to her tragic suicide. Along with her surviving peers, viewers listen to the 13 recorded cassette tapes that she left behind, detailing her version of incidents that crippled her psyche so severely that they led her to take her own life.

The show’s concluding episode contains a copycat suicide attempt by one of her peers, who has listened to these tapes. As a result, there is obvious communal concern about potential unintended consequences resulting from sensitive kids misinterpreting the mini-series’ real goal, and possibly seeing suicide as an option, a way to escape the tortures of being bullied.

However, from my years being a part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s bullying prevention programs, I believe that parents should see the mini-series as a wake-up call. It’s a way to enter into dialogue with their own children.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center first opened our Museum of Tolerance in 1993. In addition to teaching the lessons of the Shoah, we also deal with contemporary issues — anti-Semitism, hate, terrorism, and bullying. We built the museum because we know that tolerance and respect are not automatically embedded within us, but must be taught and experienced.

Now also would be a good time to recognize and deal with bullying in our own ranks, albeit perhaps in a different form.

I went to a mainstream yeshiva and remember coming home to my father in what likely was first grade, crying that my classmates said I wasn’t kosher. Why? Because I was short, I was a “shrimp.” It might sound ridiculous now — it didn’t to a six-year-old.

In the past presidential campaign, I listened to middle school and high school students bullying each other in the back of our synagogues and around my own Shabbat table because they were either “liberal nuts supporting a crook” or “bigots supporting a harasser of women.” These arguments and behaviors obviously came from their parents, who, as is demonstrated in “13 Reasons Why,” simply fail to notice the trickle-down effects of their actions.

Are we in the Jewish world doing enough to teach tolerance and understanding to our own children? Are we talking to them about the beauty of all within our midst, and the various customs and ways of life within our community? Or are we poking seemingly innocuous fun at the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and still referring to each other, as we did 25 years ago in Brooklyn, where I grew up around SYs and JDUBs? Are we, in the comfort of our own homes, still referring to former chasidim as Tuna Bagels and the Yeshiva world as Oreos? Are we discounting individuals for a minyan because we don’t agree with the kind of yarmulke they wear (as happened to my own father not too far from my childhood home)? Are we not remembering that when the Nazis came to our family’s doors, they didn’t care about anyone’s level of religious observance, financial position, or any other attribute that separates us. They recognized us as one people, one nation, one unified entity, to be driven off of the face of the earth.

“13 Reasons Why” should stand as a reminder of the complexities that our next generation faces. A generation ago, the school bell produced a much-needed reprieve for victims of bullying. In the world of social media, it simply no longer marks that reprieve. Nights, weekends — it makes no difference. In today’s world, we have to deal with YouTube, Facebook, and so many other online platforms. At a time when the world is at its smallest, we must be as aware as possible of it.

When we talk about the need to combat the rising levels of anti-Semitism and hate, let us all better understand the role of tolerance in that equation. It matters both in the way we treat the outside world and in the way we treat each other. Let us not be fearful of the realities brought to the fore in “13 Reasons Why,” but rather let us face that which needs to be faced and better understand that which we will need to perpetually examine.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.