Congregation responds to bullying: ‘It could have been my kid’
On the afternoon of Dec. 2, Jordan Peisner, a 14-year old freshman at El Camino Real Charter High School, went with two friends to a nearby Wendy’s in the Platt Village Shopping Center in West Hills, a popular after-school hangout. As they later exited the restaurant, another teenage boy — someone Jordan had never met before — approached Jordan from behind and sucker-punched him hard in the head, knocking him to the ground.
Jordan was brought to West Hills Hospital. Due to the severity of his injuries — a skull fracture, a concussion, a ruptured eardrum, and swelling and bleeding in his brain — he was airlifted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he would spend several days.
The teenage suspect and another minor who police said was also involved were arrested on felony assault and conspiracy charges and are scheduled to appear for a juvenile court hearing on Feb. 2. Video of the attack, shot by a teen who police said may have accompanied the attacker to the scene, was posted to social media.
About 12 hours after the attack, at 4:25 a.m. on Dec. 3, Jordan’s father, Ed Peisner, posted the following note on the Facebook page of Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills: “Rabbi Vogel. Please say a prayer for our son Jordan who is in need of healing thoughts and prayers. Thank you.”
Since it was Shabbat, Vogel did not see the post until that Saturday night. By then there were already dozens of responses from others offering those healing thoughts and prayers, as well as hugs and blessings. Vogel knew something must be very wrong. And though the story was not yet all over the news, as it soon would be, a quick search supported his hunch.
Vogel said in an interview that many congregants were shaken by the crime. The Peisners had not been members of the temple for several years, but that didn’t matter. Temple Aliyah’s congregants felt a kinship with the family.
“I was hearing, ‘It could have been my kid,’ ” Vogel said. “I know people don’t get moved for long. If we’re going to get the word out about how insidious [bullying] is, I wanted to grab onto that energy, helping people understand what bullying is about.”
To that end, a discussion on bullying called “It Could Have Been My Kid” — aimed at both teens and adults — was scheduled at the synagogue. On a rainy night less than a week after the brutal attack, more than 100 people, mostly congregants, gathered in the Temple Aliyah sanctuary.
“We’re here to give the Peisners strength,” Vogel said as he opened the program. But the rabbi also urged action. “The Jewish tradition says we cannot be bystanders,” he said. “How do we create a climate of caring?”
Vogel said it was “bashert” that congregant Stephanie R. Bien’s book, “Bully Prevention Tips for Teens: 18 Powerful Ways to Protect Yourself Through High School,” which she co-authored with Yvonne Brooks, had recently been published. Bien, a Woodland Hills therapist, and Brooks, founder of the Brooks and Brooks Foundation, which has a mission to educate and empower families, both spoke at the program.
“The question for all parents is, ‘What is my child becoming in the home, at school, and in the community under my care?’ ” Brooks said. She went on to offer a long list of characteristics of children with “healthy emotional states of being,” such as being thankful, secure, kind, tolerant and hopeful.
“A child who bullies is a child who has been stripped of their dignity,” Brooks continued. “They feel worthless. They feel powerless. They feel their safety threatened.” She discussed ways parents strip their children of their emotional well-being as well as signs that a child is being bullied.
One of the most revealing parts of the evening came when the authors asked the attendees to form small, mixed-age groups. Some of the young people, who were from various schools in the San Fernando Valley, talked about what they saw as the futility of reporting bullying to school counselors. The adults in the audience listened and asked questions about the differences between bullying among boys and that which happens among girls, in person as well as online.
Ed Peisner also spoke briefly that evening, saying he had a mission: He wanted to see new, anti-bullying legislation.
“Recording a crime that you have prior knowledge of and sharing that recording for entertainment purposes should be deemed a criminal act,” he said in reference to the video of the attack that was posted on social media. “Sadly, now, the consequences for this type of behavior are woefully insufficient — nothing. Personally, I’m not resting until that changes.”
Vogel spoke in favor of this effort and promised the support of the Temple Aliyah congregation. State Assembly member Matt Dababneh, whose 45th District covers much of the West Valley, also offered his support.
After several days at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Jordan Peisner returned home. His life, at least for the immediate future, has been significantly changed. He suffers from severe headaches. He will not finish the school year at his high school. And he cannot participate in any activities in which he might bump his head — including skateboarding, his passion — because with his brain injuries, such an impact could prove fatal.
This past Saturday, students in the Cool 2 Be Kind Club at El Camino Real Charter organized a march and rally against bullying that was held close to the scene of the attack, near Victory Boulevard and Platt Avenue. The event, which drew support from local businesses, was attended by several hundred people, including community leaders and elected officials who echoed Vogel’s remarks from the discussion at Temple Aliyah.
“What I’m afraid of is, after things calm down about Jordan Peisner, people go back to life and accept this as a reality,” Vogel said. “If we do that, we’ve learned nothing.”