After Pittsburgh: Dealing with Anxiety

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.

14 Ways to Cope with Anxiety

Image: Art by PeteLinforth via pixabay.com. Public domain.

I have family, friends and students who call and text me:

  • “Rabbi, I haven’t slept a full night since the election.”
  • “I am overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t function.”
  • “Ruth, every day I shake and then break down in tears.”
  • “I looked on Facebook and then I threw up.”
  • “I have no idea how I am going to get through the next four years.”

I hear you. I hear your fears, and I hear your paralysis in anxiety. This post is my way of giving some rabbinical-friendly-motherly advice.

If you were not a fan of Donald Trump, you’ve had a bad shock. News reports from respectable sources led us to believe that Hillary Clinton would win the election. They were wrong: she won the popular vote, but Trump won the electoral vote, and that’s the one that counts. So you were misled, and you were surprised with bad news.

Now the news from both reputable and other sources is full of really scary words. I won’t repeat the words, they’ve already piled upon your surprise and created anxiety. You read them or heard them and now they are hurting you. Oof.

Here’s the facts: we are going to have many opportunities for mitzvot in the coming years, if Mr. Trump keeps his campaign promises. There will be work to do. If you are going to be useful in helping to preserve human rights, first you have to take care of yourself.

Remember: It is a mitzvah to attend to your physical and mental health.

Some ideas for taking care of yourself:

  • As you know, your favorite news source was wrong about the election. It’s OK to not listen to the news for a while if all the news is doing is paralyzing you.
  • Take a break from social media. It is full of clickbait stories that will needlessly upset you. Even if Facebook bans the ads for them, naive friends may be reposting “news stories” that are clickbait lies. At the very least, least don’t click on anything. Just connect to friends there.
  • Get outdoors. If you aren’t watching TV or using social media, you now have free time. Take a walk or if you are on wheels like me, take a joyride outdoors if you can.
  • Exercise.
  • Notice which friends calm you, and which ones upset you. Spend more time with the calmers, less with the upsetting people. Activism is one thing, anxiety is another. If you feel trapped with your anxiety, that’s not useful activism.
  • Meditate.
  • Go easy on caffeine. If you must drink coffee in the morning, stop drinking it by noon.
  • If you or anyone else are thinking of suicide, seek help immediately. You can do this by calling 911. “Thinking of suicide” includes joking about it, planning it, imagining it, and/or thinking about it a lot. It’s a serious matter.
  • Did you know that some strains of marijuana can exacerbate anxiety? Other strains may be helpful. If you have a prescription, check with your doc and see if the sort you are using is making your anxiety worse. This article has some information on anxiety and pot.
  • Pray. I find it helps to pray with a minyan. The repetitive good words of Jewish prayer remind me of the person I want to be, and connect me to the world beyond myself.
  • If your sleep or eating patterns are disrupted for more than a week, seek medical help and/or counseling. Short term anxiety over real fears can snowball into an anxiety disorder if it goes unchecked for too long. Take care of it.
  • There is still time to sign up for health insurance. Knowing that you are covered for the time being is one less thing to worry about.
  • Here’s what I do to get through difficult times: Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  • Take action. Many felt helpless right after the election, but really, we aren’t helpless. There are things we can do. Here are some ideas for taking action against hate in America.

You are a human being, priceless beyond all imagining. Jewish tradition teaches that you are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that there is a spark of the Divine within you. Take care of yourself, and you will be able to take care of others. That is how the world will become a better place.

Anti-anxiety Shabbat – coping during these difficult days — Rabbi John Rosove’s Blog

Image: Sunset from my back porch. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

I love this post from Rabbi John Rosove. If you have been feeling anxious and are wondering how to cope, give it a read:

No one should be surprised that so many Americans feel anxious these days. Consider all that’s happened in the last 16 years, the cumulative effect of which has led to the state of our national psyche today: The contested 2000 Presidential election – the rise of Al Qaeda, international terrorism and 9/11 – the Afghan […]

via Anti-anxiety Shabbat – coping during these difficult days — Rabbi John Rosove’s Blog

Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!

Image: Gerbera daisy. Photo by Pezibear at pixabay.com.

Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?

STOP.

I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.