6 Ways Jewish Institutions Can Better Support Those With PTSD

Everyone is susceptible to trauma, but the sad truth is that more members of the Jewish community now have to deal with the aftermath of antisemitic attacks.

Just as the Jewish year is a cycle, so is the appearance of one phrase almost every holiday: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

For many celebrating, “let’s eat” is the focus. What comes before, the almost-being-killed-and-surviving bit, is something that happened in the past. Surviving is something that happened to our grandparents, great-grandparents, or the biblical Israelites. But this phrase gets complicated when it goes from being communal to personal, like for me.

I’m a trauma survivor. I’m also a Jew. These two parts of my identity became forever intertwined when, on Yom Kippur 2019, a neo-Nazi tried to kill me and 50 others for the “crime” of being Jews at a synagogue in Halle, Germany.

Traumatic experiences come in various forms, and I’m aware that what I lived through is on the more extreme end. I’m also aware that not everyone who has encountered trauma develops PTSD. Yet many do and, because of that, we often struggle to feel at ease in Jewish communities.

The sad truth is that more and more members of our community have dealt with the aftermath of antisemitic attacks, not to mention the many other forms of violence and trauma that all people are susceptible to. I want the spaces that I seek to find community and meaning to treat me as a whole person. Part of that means doing more to support those entering Jewish spaces, whether virtual or in person, who have PTSD.

Here are some ideas for doing just that:

  1. Make classrooms and sanctuaries more friendly to those with hyperarousal. A common symptom of PTSD is hyperarousal. Essentially some, as myself, struggle to turn off the fight-or-flight response. I often try to sit with my back to the wall so that I can have a complete view of a space, including the exits and entrances. Upon greeting people, consider asking them where they are most comfortable sitting rather than automatically directing them towards the front of a room. Similarly, I’ll often duck out of spaces and events to sit quietly somewhere in a corner. If your space is large enough, consider having a quiet sensory room or corner for people to decompress in.
  2. Do not make emergency-like announcements from the bima unless there is an actual emergency. I was once at Shabbat morning services where a Torah reader showed up late. The rabbi, concerned about the Torah service, cleared their throat and announced to the congregants: “We have a little problem.” My heart rate spiked upon hearing those words, as my brain jumped to the worse case scenarios. Synagogue and lay leaders, please refrain from using ambiguous phrases like this. If something impacts a service or event, state it directly.
  3. Try to avoid fireworks at events OR make it 100% clear if fireworks will happen. As a kid, I loved fireworks. The designs in the sky mesmerized me. Now? Every firework sounds like a potential explosive device. I try to avoid going to events featuring fireworks, but sometimes they’re sent off as a “surprise” for the audience. I implore groups to advertise if fireworks will be part of a Jewish event. Let attendees decide if the space will support their health and healing while making it possible for others to enjoy the lights.
  4. Normalize mental health as part of caring committees. Many Jewish groups have some sort of caring committee that supports those who are sick, often by bringing food or helping with necessary tasks. Those who have mental illnesses should have the option to be included. I can only speak about my experience, but there have been, and likely will be, times when someone dropping off food or offering to help clean would have made all the difference.
  5. Offer trainings for others to learn how to offer better support. I’ve been amazed by the support of loved ones and mentors that I’ve had since day one. Yet, again and again, I have difficult discussions with those I know less well that mean well but will try to “fix me” or “desensitize” me. Jewish orgs need to do more to educate on how to support those with PTSD, and those with past trauma, so that we feel like full, not partial or conditional, members.
  6. Create Jewish resources specific to PTSD. Jewish traditions and texts have so much to offer to help those with PTSD and their families better heal and integrate their experiences. I, for example, was exhilarated when studying the story of Abraham known as “The Covenant of Parts.” When someone remarked that biblical narrative there is incomprehensible because it’s nonlinear, I shared that it reminded me of a PTSD flashback. Seeing myself in our ancient stories has given me strength to talk about my experience and serves as a reminder that I am not alone.

If only one Jewish organization makes a change based off of this, dayenu. I am the sum of my experiences. Not only do I want to feel safe and comfortable in Jewish spaces, but I want others to have that experience, too.

Paige Shoshannah

Paige Shoshannah lives, works, and schmoozes in Berlin. When she's not teaching about National Socialism and the Shoah, she enjoys learning more about Jewish life as well as Jewish history in Germany and beyond.

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