IN THE MIDST OF HORROR, THE BEST WE CAN DO IS STRUGGLENov 02, 2023
“We found Emily. She’s dead. And I went… YES! And smiled. Because that was best possibility that I was hoping for. She was either dead or in Gaza. And if you know anything about what they do to people in Gaza…death was a blessing, an absolute blessing”.
This CNN interview with Thomas Hand, father of 8-year-old Emily from kibbutz Be’eri echoes in my mind on a daily basis. He sent his little girl on a sleepover at a friend’s house. She was kidnapped by terrorists on that fateful October 7th and after missing for two days, it was reported that she was murdered. We all understood her father’s words of devastated relief. We felt it with him. I will never forget that interview. I know you won’t either. His face, his tears, his quivering voice and his palpable pain. His voice hits me at random points throughout my day and I start to cry. “YES!” I hear him say. My hearts aches and my head throbs but I don’t hold back my tears, I can’t. We are suffering from a collective grief. Even writing about him makes me start to gasp for air. Nobody should know so much suffering.
I am not okay and I know none of you are either.
I know that many of you, like me, have two images from October 7th seared in to your minds for eternity. Two images that you did not want to see (and I will not describe) but when we anxiously opened up our phones and computers after the holidays concluded, we had no idea what was about to hit us. We knew the attacks in Israel were bad but we could not fathom this level of atrocity. We did not know such evil could actually exist -and then be recorded and shared via livestream.
Young people dancing with their friends at a music festival; their lives ripped away from them. Innocent families in their homes, taken from their beds, dragged away and massacred. Hostages being taken and STILL being held, the count is at over 230 now; women, babies, children, the elderly and holocaust survivors.
After we saw those graphic scenes, we knew we should not look anymore but it was too late. Those images will stay with us forever. We knew that many more pictures and videos would be shared as we learned more about the horrors of that day. I do not judge anyone who continued to look and, to some degree, I understood why pictures and videos were being shared, but I could not look. It was too much. Our brains are not wired to handle such brutality. Vicarious trauma is real. Vicarious trauma is the accruing effect of being exposed to someone else’s trauma; witnessing fear, pain and terror that others have experienced. This can cause the brain and body to have the same responses as the individual who experienced the trauma directly. So yes, it makes sense that you are still not okay.
If you are on social media or you get a newspaper, you saw that it didn’t take long for the media and “social justice activists” to compound our distress by blaming Israel and its “occupation” for the horrific events that occurred. People who pride themselves on showing compassion for so many other instances of human suffering were suddenly skipping right over Hamas’ history and the suffering of Jews and Israelis. The justifications of the heinous acts of violence were mind boggling. They were doubling down on their calls for “decolonization” and ending Israeli “apartheid”. These people were actually defending terrorists! There were posts shared by huge accounts citing “complicated politics” or the need for “context” when discussing what happened. This attack had everything to do with Jew hatred sand and nothing to do with politics. Also, WHY DO WE NEED CONTEXT TO SAY THAT KIDNAPPING, R*PING AND MURDERING INNOCENT PEOPLE IS WRONG??
The hostility, the victim blaming, propaganda and antisemitic tropes that were emerging were not from alt right maniacs but from people who many of us respect and think of as educated, intelligent and level headed. They are people who consider themselves sophisticated thinkers; even liberal, feminist, progressive and “anti-racist”. And yet here they were excusing rape, hate, and actual genocide. Many of these individuals are active in our colleges, ivy league schools and are in leadership positions in highly regarded institutions. None of these people would ever dream of supporting Al Quaeda or ISIS but suddenly Hamas is a resistance movement; they are “freedom fighters” who are liberating their people from the Israeli “regime”. These people were denying the reports of violence and brutality against innocent babies and demanding photo evidence as proof. Why do we need to prove that our people were terrorized? The actual gaslighting was unreal. I couldn’t help but think of all the abuse victims watching this play out. The Jewish community was reeling from the insane acts of barbarism they endured and then they are met with the response of “Prove it”, “It wasn’t that bad” or “This is your fault though”. Suddenly “Believe all victims” means everyone except Jewish victims.
As a therapist, I was particularly disturbed by the therapy community online and more specifically the trauma therapists I am in networks with. People who spend a lot of time talking about cultural and generational trauma were completely dismissing the painful history of Jews, in order to fit their own cultural experience and trauma. The cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy were infuriating. The only time I have ever seen so many trauma therapists justify such savagery was when it was carried out on Jews and Israelis last week. I unfollowed many social media accounts and left many groups of therapists that I previously learned from and respected immensely. Many of them told me they weren’t “educated enough” to speak up. I don’t know what kind of special education you need to condemn terrorism. It’s really not that hard. It appears that “Silence is violence” suddenly became “Silence is golden”.
That being said, I have a family member who, for a living, fights extremists and antisemites all day. He reminded me that the Jewish people have many more friends than enemies and that online popularity is not indicative of real-life importance. The message of unwavering support and condemnation of the attacks from President Biden and his administration as well as Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul in New York were extremely comforting (if you haven’t listened to them, I highly recommend you do). The support from the UK, Ukraine, France, Italy and Germany was unequivocal. We saw landmark buildings across the world light up with blue and white in solidarity with Israel. This matters.
Many of you are wondering how we cope with all of this practically. What should we be doing on a daily basis? How do we help our kids? We are all feeling so helpless. The reality is though, we are actually experts at responding to trauma. It is in our DNA. The Jewish people since the beginning of time have had to figure out how to fight for our survival, heal and rebuild and we are really good at it.
As my good friend and colleague Elisheva Liss wrote so beautifully, “I wonder if Jews are so over represented in fields like medicine and psychology because of the relentless physical and experiential trauma we keep needing to heal. We prefer researching solutions and enhancing health over lashing out. Our God wants us to pursue peace and giving.” She went on to say “We respond to generations of repeated, horrific national trauma by looking for solutions and healing for ourselves and the world. We even have a name for it: tikkun olam.”
We will overcome this, like we have thousands of times before but it makes sense that we feel so overwhelmed. We are in it right now. As Rabbi Menachem Penner said on a Sunday night at a Young Israel of Woodmere Tehillim (prayer) gathering, while the horror of Holocaust is still very close to us, this generation has not personally witnessed a persecution like the one we saw on two weeks ago. There are unfathomable things happening to our brothers and sisters in Israel. Many of you have family members and close friends living in Israel. Lots of you have loved ones on the front lines or learning in school. We know things will likely escalate in the coming weeks and this feels really scary. This is hard. We don’t know what things will look like in Israel or here in the U.S. in the coming days, weeks or months. Our loss of safety and security is a form of grief and what many of you are feeling and experiencing are actually symptoms of grief.
I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing these past four weeks. I have been crying. A lot. And then crying some more. I have also been going to every pro-Israel rally that I can get to because it is comforting for me to remember that Israel and the Jewish people have strong allies here in the United States. I've been sending letters to congress asking them to continue to stand with Israel, to do more to protect Jews and specifically Jews on college campuses and I am using my social media to push back against the lies and propaganda being spread. It might be an echo chamber on there, but I will not stay quiet and allow tropes and Jew hatred to continue being spread.
I have also joined a group chat of fellow Jewish therapists (religious and non-religious) where we support each other in this really hard time when so many of our colleagues have hurt and betrayed us with their, denial of our devastation, their selective outrage and blatant antisemitism. I know many of you don’t feel safe in your workplaces and this is a tragedy. Consider reaching out to Jewish colleagues and forming some kind of support network. Also worth mentioning that AJC (American Jewish Committee) has a lot of wonderful resources for anyone who needs help reaching out to their employers regarding the situation in Israel (https://www.ajc.org/AttackonIsraelTemplates).
And now, some ideas for coping:
In terms of helping our kids: Of course you are struggling to show up as a strong and sturdy leader for your kids while you are overwhelmed with your own feelings. Be gentle with yourself and remember that it is not necessarily a bad thing for kids to see you express a range of emotions. Remember to set an example that helps them understand how to healthily handle concerns about terror events. Don’t be overly dramatic or emotional. Don’t yell or wail or go in to hysterics when they are around. Don’t have a big reaction in front of them if you read something upsetting. Pause, take a deep breath and leave the room if you need to. Don’t constantly talk about all the awful things that are happening in Israel or even globally. Don’t perseverate out loud about whether another holocaust is going to happen and if we need to leave the U.S. (yes, kids are hearing this talk from adults in their lives and it’s really scary for them).
Be a resource for helping them to cope. You can and should express concern for those who are living in afflicted areas but also reassure them about their protection and safety here. Point out the increased police presence and tighter security measures in school and shul. Instead of framing it as something horrible, frame it as a measure we are fortunate to have to keep us safe. Talk about the messages of support we have gotten from world leaders and public figures. Bring them to those rallies if you can. Let them see and hear for themselves.
Answer any questions they may have in an age-appropriate manner. Stick to facts and very general information for younger kids. With your teens, listen to their concerns and answer their questions as best you can. You can always say “I don’t know” because the reality is, there is a lot we just don’t understand in this. Talk to teens about social media and discuss protecting themselves online from seeing violent images and engaging with anti-Israel accounts. And, while our words may never feel like enough, our presence will always matter.
Many people have reached out to me to ask about their children who are studying in Israel as to whether they should bring them home and while each situation needs individual consideration, I can say generally that if your child is not asking to come back and feels strongly about staying in Israel, it is likely that you can feel confident to let them make this decision. Even if they feel anxious but they are not expressing that they want to leave, you can honor their choice. Obviously, this may be a decision that needs to be revisited with your child and their school as things progress but it is not “crazy” if you have let your child/children remain in Israel during this time.
The title of my article are words I heard from psychologist, Dr. Becky Kennedy and they so perfectly express that right now, we aren't supposed to be functioning as usual. Struggling is an appropriate response to the hell we are experiencing. All that struggle is your brain and body’s attempt to regulate itself when things are completely upside down. There is no “right” way to feel in these times. We are all experiencing tremendous grief and sadness. Let those feelings come and let them go. Take care of yourself and pay attention to any symptoms that may start to become more of an issue. Examples would be, increased anxiety that is getting in the way of your daily functioning such as refusing to leave the house. Inability to get out of bed, shower, intrusive thoughts or overwhelming feelings of helplessness or despair or suicidal thoughts could also be signs of a more serious issue. Please speak to a medical provider and get a referral to a mental health professional for support.
For us, it is important that we strengthen ourselves. Understand though that being strong does not mean we aren’t scared or crying or feeling helpless. It means that we allow ourselves space to feel all of our feelings with empathy and compassion. Feel what you need to. This is an intense time. If you have kids, set a supportive example for them as well by allowing them a space to express what they are experiencing. It is completely normal if your kids don’t want to talk about what is going on in Israel and you don’t need to push them to either. Just make sure to let them know that whatever they feel is okay and that you are there to support them in whatever way they need.
Routines are really important for us in times of chaos. When the world feels unpredictable, we need to try to keep things as “normal” as possible. Stick to regular sleep and wake times, eat regularly, stay hydrated and take any medications as prescribed. Kids should go to school on scheduled school days and have their regular learning schedules. When the world is in turmoil, we need to focus on controlling our immediate environment as much as possible to keep it as consistent and structured as we can. The less chaotic our personal environment feels, the less chaotic our nervous system feels and the better we can access coping tools.
Connect with friends and loved ones. Our Five Towns community (as well as many communities outside of the Five Towns and New York) have been organizing community events to hear words of encouragement and to pray. These events are helpful; attend them. Get together with friends in person. Check in on your friends and family. Connection is so important in helping mitigate the effects of trauma. The Jewish people are an incredibly close family who, as dysfunctional as we can be at times, in times of crisis know how to show up for each other like no other. A sense of community can help you to feel less alone in a time when it feels incredibly scary to be a Jew.
Give back to your community. We have seen the amazing fundraisers and collection campaigns that have been initiated here for our brothers and sisters in Israel. It is heartwarming to see everyone coming together and it has been healing to participate in. Give what you can in the form of time, money, creating chessed (acts of kindness) initiatives, writing letters of thanks to local politicians and law enforcement who have stood with the Jewish community and Israel.
Move your body even if it’s just for ten minutes. All movement is beneficial to mental health. It can help release tension, increase feel good chemicals in our body and help regulate our nervous system. Building physical strength has been shown to improve mental resiliency so don’t skip that workout session.
BREATHE. People don’t realize how when we are in a state of stress our breathing changes. When a person is anxious, they will take small, shallow breaths using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs. This can disrupt the flow of gases in the body and increase anxiety symptoms even more. Try to tune in to your body at different points during the day. Sit up tall, push your shoulders down and back, unclench your jaw and practice even just 30 seconds of abdominal breathing. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Notice how your chest and abdomen move while you breathe. Gently breathe in through your mouth and out through the nose. With each breath, allow the tension to slip away.
Make time for joy. Yes, even in the midst of pain we have to be able to laugh, feel gratitude and even happiness. Pain and joy can coexist. Make an effort to look for the good in your every day life and cherish it. Without this, you will most definitely crumble.
In the coming weeks we will likely experience a roller coaster of emotions. We will hear a lot of bad news and hopefully more good news. When we are faced with constant stress and uncertainty it makes sense that our thinking turns to despair but as Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
On Pesach we sing Vehi She’amda and say, “In every generation they rise up against us and try to destroy us and Hashem rescues us from their hands”. Let us all try to lean in to our faith, our incredibly resilient community and our deep sense of purpose. Am Ha’netzach, Lo mefached; we are not going anywhere.
Let us continue to pray for the strength, health, healing and safety of those living in Israel, the brave heroes serving in the IDF (some of whom are your incredible children!) and Jews around the world.
AM YISRAEL CHAI!!!
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