A Message for My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh

Image: White votive candles arranged in the shape of a Star of David. (Photo: FreedomMaster/Shutterstock)

“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.”

You may be puzzled by the degree to which Jewish friends feel personally threatened by the shootings in Pittsburgh, or by the length of time they feel anxious about it. This is one of the things about minority status: things hit close to home, even when the event is far away.

Many of your Jewish friends have had other experiences of anti-Semitism that were personally upsetting and this event has re-stimulated feelings from those earlier experiences. My synagogue was vandalized on Rosh Hashanah last year. My rabbinical school was vandalized before that. My friend Pamela Waechter was murdered in the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Those are just a few of my personal experiences: your Jewish friends have had other experiences of things people have said to them or things done to people or institutions they loved. Pittsburgh came on top of whatever they were already carrying.

Some of your Jewish friends 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. Intergenerational trauma has been documented in the decendants of Holocaust survivors and in the decendants of people imprisoned in POW camps during the American Civil War. Your Jewish friend may also be affected by family memories of trauma – we tend not to talk about those a lot, but you would be surprised how many of the Jews you know have family stories about fleeing death.

Judaism is like an enormous extended family. Anyone who receives a Jewish education learns Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Rabbi Melanie Aron explains this concept by citing a story from the tradition:

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” – Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11

As a result, when there is trouble for Jews anywhere in the world, all Jews feel it. The best analogy I can offer is the way Americans felt frightened and angry after 9/11, even if they had no personal connection to any of the victims, even if they lived far away from any of the cities involved.

What can our friends do to support us? If you are not Jewish, but you have Jewish friends or relatives, give them a call or an email or a shout-out via Facebook and tell them they are in your thoughts. Be aware that the Pittsburgh shooting felt like both a personal loss and an existential threat to many of us. Offers of prayers and support are welcome.

As you would with any other shocking loss, keep the advice, theological statements, and political commentary to a minimum. “Where were you when you heard about it?” is a good question. “I wanted you to know that I care” is great. Letting them know that you are willing to listen to their fears without judgment or one-upmanship is wonderful.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join the ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center or donate to them. 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 against all forms of hate is a very tangible way of letting your Jewish friend know that you understand.

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