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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10 Things We Can Do To Fight Hate

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

It seems like the news, and especially social media, are full of hateful speech and actions: hate and violence against immigrants, against women, against LGBTQ folks, against Muslims, against Jews, and against people of color. The recent passage of the AHCA by the House of Representatives seemed to say that our elected officials do not value the lives of sick, fat or disabled people.

Some of us are shocked by the hate; others are less surprised.

The question remains: What can I personally do about it? Am I helpless in the face of this, or are there things I can do?

Here are some suggestions for action against hate:

  1. We can support organizations that track hate and report hate. That includes the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Both those institutions have been doing this work for years, tracking hate groups, hate speech, and hate crimes, and they are good at what they do.
  2. Read this Sally Kohn articles in the Washington Post: This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter. See what applies to you and run with it.
  3. Support the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). It is one of the leading organizations in the U.S. dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants. Again, visit the website, read their materials, and donate if you can and if their goals sound right to you. If you can’t donate, help spread their message.
  4. Subscribe to your local newspaper and to publications that don’t preach anyone’s party line. The “Fourth Estate” is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and our has been sadly weakened by the advent of “free” online news sources. When you pay for your newspaper, online or offline, you are paying journalists to ask questions and dig for answers. The good ones annoy politicians of ALL stripes. Personally I subscribe to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and SFGate, the news source for the SF Bay Area. Supporting ethical journalism is one of the most important things we can do to keep democracy healthy.
  5. If newspaper subscriptions and donations are not in the budget, we can still support those who do good work. Journalists receive endless harassment and even death threats; they appreciate friendly emails and tweets. We can spread the messages of organizations that fight hate and support the oppressed.
  6. Volunteer and/or give financial support to Planned Parenthood. It serves women from all walks of life, but especially low-income women.
  7. Join with like-minded people to fight hate. Join a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or secular organization. Ask about their social justice programming. Combining our energy with that of others makes for more effective activism. If disability or other factors keep us from some activities, we can still encourage those who are able to be more active.
  8. We can educate ourselves. Listen to minority voices online, in print, and in person. If we are not members of a group, we cannot know what’s best for African-Americans, Muslims, women, poor people, Native Americans, incarcerated persons, LGBTQI, or disabled persons. They aren’t stupid, even though institutionalized racism/sexism/homophobia/etc has taught those of us with privilege to think they are. Don’t assume that your minority status makes you an expert on someone else’s needs. In short, don’t talk – LISTEN.
  9. Help clean up Twitter and other social media. Block people who spout hate messages – block them immediately and without any discussion. They thrive on argument and discussion – deny them that luxury! If you have accidentally misjudged someone, you aren’t hurting them by blocking them, and you haven’t engaged in lashon hara, evil speech by slandering them. Instead, spread information from reputable sources and resist the urge to retweet things that may or may not be true.
  10. When someone points out that we have said something hurtful or hateful, we can listen instead of becoming defensive. This is the most difficult thing on this list, but it may well be the most important. All of us have something to learn about the way our language impacts others, and usually it is unpleasant to learn about it. I have a script I try to use to keep my defensiveness from kicking in: “I am so sorry! I will try to learn better!” I accept that I will never know all about the experiences of others, just as they won’t know all about me. It costs me nothing to express sorrow about my ignorance, and the good thing is, it is an opportunity to learn.

How are you fighting hate in America? What strategies have I failed to list here? If you are a member of a minority, what have you seen that worked? What do you wish people outside your group would understand?

American Hate: It’s Time to Speak Up

Image: Storm clouds gather over a landscape. Photo by Unsplash at pixabay.com.

Friends, I want to make you aware of something happening right now in the United States. This is something that transcends politics; whether you voted Trump or Clinton or 3rd Party or not at all, it concerns all Americans of good will.

More than 800 journalists have received hate mail and/or death threats via Twitter and other social media outlets over the past year, and the pace has escalated since the election. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report:

The top 10 most targeted journalists – all of whom are Jewish – received 83 percent of those 19,253 tweets. The top 10 includes conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman, and CNN’s Sally Kohn and Jake Tapper.

More than 2/3 of these tweets were sent by only 1200 Twitter accounts, out of the 313 million accounts currently active on Twitter. Twitter has deactivated 21% of the offending accounts; the ADL is in conversation with them about the others.

Language in these tweets is overtly anti-Semitic. In an Atlantic article by Emma Green, she reports:

Beyond hateful language, users often photoshop journalists’ faces into images from the Holocaust, like Jews lined up to get food in concentration camps or lying in bunks in barracks. Users might share cartoons that depict ugly stereotypes about Jews, showing them with big noses and surrounded by piles of money. The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, was one of the handful of most frequently targeted journalists. In June, he wrote about some of the tweets he’s recently received, including a cartoon of the U.S. “Jewpreme Court,” a picture of money coming out of an oven, and a tweet that asked, “Why do Jews get so triggered when we mention ovens?”

There are death threats as well, as well as threats against the families of the journalists. This is not the kind of speech which qualifies for the protection of the First Amendment. Specific threats have been brought to the attention of law enforcement and I hope will continue to be pursued as the crimes they are.

Among the bios of the 1200 source accounts, the words that appear most frequently are “Trump,” “nationalist,” “conservative,” and “white.” The Trump campaign has not endorsed or supported this language; troublingly, though, it has not repudiated the anti-Semitic language and behavior of supporters, either.

I am aware that Mr. Trump has Jewish family members. I’m not sure why he does not take the anti-Semitic language of his supporters more seriously.  History teaches us that this kind of hate never stops with just one small group of people. I assure you that if Mr. Trump and his administration do not discourage this hate fully and quickly, we are going to see things in America no decent American ever wanted to see. 

It might start with “just the journalists,” “just the Jews,” “just the Muslims,” or “just the black activists.” I assure you that it will not stop there unless we put a stop to it now. We are seeing a rapid escalation of this language, plus acts of violence, and there is no time to waste.

What can we do? Here are some options:

  1. Send a strongly worded message to Mr. Trump directly (@RealDonaldTrump) asking that he repudiate his supporters’ hateful words and behavior and that he order them to stop it now. If you voted for him, please say so.
  2. If you are a Twitter user and you see hate speech against any group or a threat to any person, report it. Here is a set of directions for doing so. Don’t shrug it off. Twitter has been slow to respond to individual incidents, so it is important that your report be available as support to other reports. For other ideas, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.”
  3. Send supportive messages to any journalist whose work you appreciate. All of them, not just the Jews, are feeling threatened these days.
  4. Send supportive messages to anyone you know who might feel threatened by the outcome of the election. Tell them what you are doing to work against hate. Don’t tell them, “It’s going to be OK.” The rhetoric during the election was very threatening and incidents of actual violence against minorities have escalated since the election.
  5. If you see harassment or bullying of any kind in person, intervene before it escalates into violence. Read What Should I Do If I See Bullying? for an effective, psychologically sound method for intervention. Know what to do, so that when you see it you will know how to act safely and effectively.
  6. Support the Anti-Defamation League. Read their website. Sign up for their newsletters. Stay informed. ADL is not a partisan organization; major supporters include Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, lefties and right-wingers.
  7. Support the Southern Poverty Law Center. They track the hate groups behind many of these threats, and provide valuable information to law enforcement. Read the article on that website entitled White Supremacists Think Their Man Won the White House.

When I was ordained in 2008 I never dreamed that I’d have to write an article like this. Not here, not in the United States of America! I beg you to choose your course of action and follow through on it.

Jews Rejecting Trump

Image: Rabbi Rothbaum speaks as Hazzan Wallach and Susan Lubeck hold “Jews Reject Trump” signs. Photo by Bend the Arc.

Last night I participated in a prayer service outside Republican headquarters in my home town of San Leandro, CA.  It was part of a prayer service and demonstration organized nationally by Bend the Arc – Jewish Action.

This year, the Republican candidate for President of the U.S. has made such outrageous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color that he has boosted the legitimacy of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. He tried to avoid repudiating those organizations. His followers have targeted journalists with Jewish names on social media.

As I wrote earlier this month in Stop the Hateful Cycle:

“I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.”

So when I got the call from Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, inviting me to participate in a rally against Trump (not for any other candidate, merely against Trump and his message) I was glad to participate. There was going to be a meeting at the Republican HQ, and we would be there to witness against racism.

We gathered outside the Republican office on MacArthur Blvd in San Leandro. Bay Area Regional Director Susan Lubeck briefed us quickly on the program and how to behave (support one another, be polite, de-escalate). The program was an observance of the yahrzeit of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman of blessed memory. They were murdered on June 21, 1964 for their voter registration and freedom school activities in segregated Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Susan had notified the San Leandro Police that we would be there, and the beat officer for the neighborhood came up before the program began, just as people were beginning to arrive for the meeting at the Republican HQ. We were careful not to block the door or create problems. The treasurer came out in hopes of shooing us away; he said they didn’t have anything to do with the national candidates. We made note of the “TRUMP” poster in the window and stayed.

Hazzan Risa Wallach led us in a nigun, a wordless hymn. We heard speeches from Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, from Susan Lubeck, and from a woman currently working to raise the minimum wage (I am sorry that I was unable to catch her name.) We also heard from Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Hazzan Wallach chanted El Maleh Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and then we said Kaddish for the three martyrs.

Periodically people would come out of the meeting and photograph us on their cell phones and make videos. We ignored them. When we began to say Kaddish, they shut the door to the office and we did not interact with them again. Periodically people driving past saw our signs (“Jews Reject Trump”) and honked in support.

It was a quiet, peaceful event (thank goodness!) and over in less than an hour.

I am grateful to Bend the Arc – Jewish Action for their organizing prowess and to Rabbis Rothbaum and Manhoff for their eloquent words. May the day come, and speedily, when no such events are needed ever again.

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Stop the Hateful Cycle

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

I’ve been listening to the news organizations do their endless “special report” drill on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida. I finally turned off the television.

The so-called news had devolved into a cycle of speculation: hate crime? terrorism? domestic? ISIS? wash-rinse-repeat…

Let’s get something straight (pun intended): Hate leads to Terror. The magnitude of this particular act of violence is unprecedented, but there is ample precedent for the hate that inspired it. Someone failed to teach the murderer that violence against anyone is unacceptable. Maybe his parents tried to teach him, but over the years acquaintances listened to his verbal violence against LGBTQ folks and said nothing. Someone heard homophobic words and said nothing. Others encouraged him, all those voices that said “someone ought to do something” or that said that “killing LGBTQ people is God’s will” bear responsibility. That includes ISIS, along with voices closer to home.

I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about arguing that “slander isn’t slander if it’s true,” please stop right there. Rechilut, the Hebrew word in question, may also be translated “gossip.” It may be either true or false.)

When we listen passively to anyone (elderly uncles included) talk about what “ought to happen” to a group of people, we stand in the blood of those human beings. This is equally true whether the targeted group is a group we like or a group we don’t like at all.

Let’s resolve to speak up every time we hear hate speech against:

  • LGBTQ people
  • People of color
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • Palestinians
  • Atheists
  • Mormons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Fat people
  • Thin people
  • Mentally ill people

… and anyone else.

To do less is to stand in the blood of another.

Addendum: I write this as much for myself as for any reader. I, too, have let hate speech pass when I have written off the speaker as beyond learning. I was wrong to do that. I teach not only with my words but with my silence. Whenever I let hateful speech pass unchallenged, I teach the speaker that I think it is OK. I was wrong to do that.

 

 

 

Goodbye, Mr. Phelps.

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Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church died today at age 84. Baruch Dayan emet.

“Baruch Dayan emet” is what Jews say when anyone dies. It means, “Blessed is the True Judge.” It’s appropriate for anyone, saint or sinner or mystery.

Watching twitter today, I saw many responses to Mr. Phelps’ death. Some were thoughtful, some were angry, some were clever, but this was one of those times when I’m glad to be an observant Jew. “Baruch Dayan emet,” I said, grateful for the tradition.

I have no idea what drove Mr. Phelps and his followers to picket funerals and spew hate. He hated a lot of people, including LGBT people, Jews, and a long list of others.

Death is often called “the great equalizer.” Rich or poor, famous or obscure, we all die, and our bodies turn to dust. Fred Phelps is no different in that respect: his body will turn to dust.

But what is not equal after death is the memory we leave behind us.  Jews are apt to say in comforting a mourner: “May the departed’s memory be for a blessing.” That one won’t be used much for Mr. Phelps, if it is used at all. I don’t know what he was to his family, but he made his life into a curse for many LGBT Americans, and for the people mourning at funerals his church picketed. He has left behind an entire generation of people to whom the name “Fred Phelps” will mean cruelty, hurt and disrespect for the dead.

Each of us has some choice over the memories we leave behind us. Choose wisely.

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