PITTSFIELD — Benjamin Ginsberg might be young — he just graduated from the eighth grade at Reid Middle School — but he's old enough to know the hurt of words or the pain of persecution.
He shared those experiences recently as a member of a peer leadership training program of the Anti-Defamation League.
"I come from a Jewish background," he said. "One day, when we were talking about Adolf Hitler in [English language arts] and social studies class, some kids were being a little ignorant and started saying, "Heil, Hitler!" like it was some hilarious joke.
"This offended me because Hitler was actually one of those men who had condemned my great-grandparents to death. Although some students may have not understood what they were saying, it's still wrong to make such statements, even in jest. We all face hardships that others might not know about."
Amid an uptick in incidents of hate crimes, anti-Semitism and bullying, the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and other private donors partnered with local school districts to invest in the ADL's A World of Difference Institute Peer Training Program. The program launched in the fall, and it included nearly 300 students and staff members from eight schools: Drury High School, Mount Greylock Regional High School, Nessacus Regional Middle School, Herberg and Reid middle schools, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, and Monument Valley Regional Middle School.
The investment amounts to about $5,000 per school to implement the training, which features 18 hours of interactive student training with Phil Fogelman, New England director of the A World of Difference Institute. It also includes a 286-page guidebook of vocabulary, educational activities and resources; a three-hour workshop for staff; a two-hour parent presentation; and six hours of additional support from the ADL.
The program aims to give youths and adults the understanding and strategies they need to help them stand up to, speak out against and educate others about the detrimental impacts of bullying, prejudice and discrimination and advocate for respect of individuals' differences.
"We need to teach kids about how other kids can feel and how bullying and name-calling can affect kids mentally and physically," said Reid seventh grader Ava Telladira.
School administrators and students alike, though initially unsure of what to expect, said they've since realized the benefits of bringing the ADL training programs to schools. During Wednesday's ceremony, William "Bill" Ballen, executive secretary of the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable, announced that Berkshire United Way has allocated a new $40,000 grant to support training in local schools over the next two years. At least eight schools already have committed to implementing the training program during the next school year.
After their own training, when the peer leaders went to talk with students in sixth grade, "[the younger students] actually sat down and listened to us," said Reid seventh grader Diamond Sepulveda.
That feeling, of being heard and looked up to, in turn, is empowering for the peer leaders. In his remarks, Reid eighth grader Uriah Hernandez said he watched his classmates during their school presentations to others "stand taller, and speak louder, with more confidence."
Sepulveda's mother, Tara LaFont, said, "I'm happy my daughter got into the program. I think this helps her."
LaFont said her daughter sometimes gets looked down on because "she dresses different." Sepulveda's style includes sporting favorite T-shirts, jeans and a curly, neon pink Mohawk, a contrast to the "girly" stereotype of fashion.
But since the training began, LaFont said, Sepulveda has seemed excited about what she's learning.
"We sit down every night at dinner and talk," she said.
In addition to educating young people at school about the effects of prejudice and hate, LaFont said, "I think it also starts at home, and how parents model their behaviors."
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-496-6239.