Image: Photo of shiva candles at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for the victims of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Mark Snyder, all rights retained.)
A number of Jews have expressed their anxiety to me since the terrible murders at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve always known that there were people who hated us, but this is different,” one said. “It’s as if an alarm has gone off deep in my bones.”
“I am afraid to go near the synagogue,” another said to me, via Twitter.
“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”
There are many different factors at play here.
- The shooting in Pittsburgh was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. This feels like a big deal because it IS a big deal. Never before has an attack on Jews near this magnitude taken place on North American soil.
- There is a long history of mass attacks against Jews in Europe, and it is not surprising that American Jews perceive this attack to be a continuation of that history. The roots are the same (see Where did Anti-Semitism Come From?)
- This attack was not an isolated incident. The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016, especially targeting Jews who are public figures or journalists.
- Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
- Jewish education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that a mass murder like the one in Pittsburgh sets off a fear that this is a harbinger of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and many anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons.
- The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events can heighten the feeling of fear and perhaps even abandonment.
What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?
Here are the things that reassure me, as I struggle with my own anxieties:
The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:
The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17
This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.
While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the rise of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to the general good feeling we enjoy today.
Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that might surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.
Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.
One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. There have been memorials and “Show Up for Shabbat” events ever since the shooting, but it is never too late to gather with Jews for comfort. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and ask about security procedures.
Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, and certainly there have always been people who quietly assimilated because the pressure was so horrible, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing.
Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.
Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.