Coping With Anti-Semitism

We live in a world in which the hatred of Jews is a growing issue. That’s a fact.

The people who commit most of the vandalism and hate speech do it to unnerve us. They know that they are pushing buttons when they draw a swastika on a wall, or say hateful things. They want to push our buttons. They want to make us feel afraid.

What can we do to fight back? Or — on a very basic level — what can we do to keep our sanity?

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. Over the past three years we have seen more and more hate crimes. Many synagogues have suffered vandalism. Twice someone has entered a synagogue with a gun looking for Jews to kill. We remember our dead with reverence, but even those ceremonies remind us of the change in climate. Stress accumulates.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. If one of your parents or grandparents were on the receiving end of Anti-Semitic violence, that may figure in to your reaction now.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events, no matter how distant, may heighten our feelings 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 help me cope:

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 founding 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 changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

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 would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution now reviews their security regularly and looks 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 2:5To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with our feelings after news of an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offer opportunities to come together – take advantage of those, whether they are services or educational programs. 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 get instructions. Many synagogues have security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, 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 and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen 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.

Advertisements

A Way to Help: Chevrah Kadisha Fund for Pittsburgh

Image: Members of the Prague Chevrah Kadisha Pray at a Deathbed. (By Buchhändler (Prag, Jüdisches Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, c.1772)

We can assist the Jews of Pittsburgh as they mourn is to help them with the enormous task of burying their dead. Traditional Jewish burial requires that the bodies of the dead be washed by a team called a chevrah kadisha, or “holy society.” To learn more about chevrah kadisha and their work I recommend MyJewishLearning.com’s excellent article on the subject.

Members of the chevrah kadisha receive special training in the handling and washing of the remains of the dead, so as to preserve their modesty and bury them with the utmost dignity. In order to meet the need of caring for so many dead at once, chevrah kadisha teams are traveling to Pittsburgh from other cities to assist. A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help with the expense of travel and housing, and for support for the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, who are themselves mourners. The description from the GoFundMe site:

Funds raised from this campaign will be potentially used to subsidize the cost of numerous out-of-towners who have expressed keen interest in assisting with the monumental tasks of preparing the dead for a speedy and dignified burial (Tahahrah), and/or sitting guard for certain periods (acting as Shomrim). Counselling services may also be required for those performing such work. Additionally, funds may be used to assist in preparing Shiva (mourning period) meals for some of the bereaved families. Other needs may emerge through additional, on the ground consultation as we provide assistance and guidance to their people.
All of the monies raised through this campaign will go directly to the local burial society and their members as required, and as their needs emerge over the next few days and weeks.

I learned about this fund from a local leader of our chevrah kadisha here in California.  I am grateful to Dan Fendel for bringing it to my attention. I am confident in recommending it to all readers who would like to help.

Burying the dead is a great mitzvah, because it is a kindness that cannot be reciprocated. By assisting those carrying out that mitzvah, we can participate in this holy work.

To contribute to the Pittsburgh Chevrah Kadisha Fund, click the link.