This week, some children will resume pre-K. Some teenagers will resume high school. Some young adults will resume college. As they do every year, nerves and excitement will fill the end of summer air. October rainfall always brings with it many questions for hopeful parents: Will my son’s team win the varsity championship? Will my daughter get accepted to Penn? Will classmates accept and include my child?
At every school or shul, people fall through the cracks. A percentage of male students may be excluded from their classmates’ hangouts. A percentage of female students are never invited to join classmates on Central Avenue for Saturday night pizza. A percentage of couples never get invited out for Shabbat lunch and kiddush club outings. Often, social exclusion prompts humans to question their self-worth.
Why wasn’t I invited to Marco’s Superbowl party? Why do they always get together for kiddush and leave my wife and me out?
Many critics will point fingers at certain institutions or specific leaders. The rabbi should make our shul more welcoming. The school principal should encourage other students to be patient with my son. The kiddush club outing is at Rhonda’s house—only she can talk about adding guests. This finger-pointing approach to problem-solving fails nine times out of 10. Instead of pointing fingers at others, we must band together and create solutions.
For example, if you notice a boy in your class who sits alone at recess, strike up a conversation with him. If you notice a couple at your shul that struggles to make friends, engage them in small talk. If someone’s problem appears beyond your skill set, alert your shul rabbi or school guidance counselor.
Episodes of social exclusion and bullying have led to depression and addictive habits in some community members. With no names disclosed, I would like to share two examples of social exclusion gone horribly wrong:
Close your eyes and imagine this scene. You have been hired to observe a middle school class. To kick things off, you join the students for recess. Once outside, the boys split up for basketball and football games. Uninterested in sports, one student named Larry* sits on the side and observes. Other observers chat among themselves 10 feet away from Larry.
Following recess, you join the class for lunch. In the cafeteria, every boy sits at one table. Across from two students, Larry asks a question with his mouth full. “Do you guys want to come over for Shabbat?” Both students ignore the question and continue their conversation.
Today, Larry is 70 years old. He never married nor developed a strong friend group. At shul or communal gatherings, Larry dreads approaching both new and familiar faces. Those negative experiences at school prompted Larry to develop low self-esteem and depression.
Keep your eyes closed and imagine this second scene. You have been hired to observe a high school class. At lunch, one student named Charlie* eats a sandwich alone. During a history class lecture, Charlie cracks corny jokes about American politics. In the school gym, Charlie bench presses over 200 pounds.
Instead of laughing at Charlie’s jokes, classmates roll their eyes at him. Instead of complimenting Charlie’s physique, fellow students ask him, “Why do you waste so much time working out?” Unable to achieve social acceptance, Charlie purchases bottles of vodka and begins drinking daily. Today, Charlie spends his time drinking hard alcohol on a park bench in New York City.
In my humble opinion, fellow classmates could have prevented each disastrous outcome.
Teenagers and children must understand the long-term importance of acting friendly and inclusive to their classmates. Inviting a lonely person to hang out at your house can uplift this individual from the depths of depression. Going out to lunch with an anxious buddy can grant your peer invaluable moments of relief. At school or shul, children and teenagers have the power to positively impact their peers’ lives forever.
One excuse discourages good-hearted people from including their struggling classmates or community members. I don’t have anything in common with Larry. We don’t have anything in common with that couple. This excuse contains some validity. All humans share different interests. Some people like sports, while others find passion in drama, art, music, Torah learning, computer programming or exercise.
However, one fundamental truth dispels this excuse. Under the hood, everyone your age shares the same goals. Every child loves to play with toys and run around outside. Every teenager seeks to learn new hobbies and receive acceptance from peers. Adults love to laugh at life’s ups and downs. Middle-aged adults want to be a part of something beyond themselves. Married couples hope to connect with their community and raise fine children. Use your endless supply of similarities to form connections with others. If you think about it, we all want the same things.
Readers might be thinking, “Why does this guy need an article to tell me to be nice to others?” Everyone learned that lesson in third grade, right?
Before unloading further critiques, hear this meaningful comment posed by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg on Tisha B’Av night: “If a member of our community suffers from physical pain, Hatzalah and other first responders jump to help ASAP. However, what if someone suffers from emotional pain? What if a student in your child’s class hasn’t gotten a playdate in months? What if someone in your neighborhood has a hard time making friends? Does our community respond like Hatzalah? Do you respond like a first responder?”
Moving forward, I ask you to step up your inclusion game this year. Once a week, sit with different people at lunch. At your next social outing, invite a new couple to join. Before bed, think about the people in your class or community who could use more attention. Be friendly to all and change the world. You never know what one smile, invitation or high-five means to someone.
To quote Pirkei Avot: “Who is a cool person? Someone who makes other people feel cool.”
To quote YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen: “Not everyone has the head to be a genius. But everyone has the heart to be a good person.”
This year, Max Gruber and I are preparing a presentation for schools on inclusion. Our brand name is Make Some Room. If you have interest in hearing us present, reach out.