What to Do After Experiencing Antisemitism

Here are some tips I learned during my own healing process.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” I’ve heard this “Monty Python” line inserted into various situations. While a great comedic bit, it’s not true. Antisemitism, of which the Spanish Inquisition was just one historical variation, is expected. It’s not that I see antisemitism everywhere; rather, I expect one of the world’s oldest hatreds to keep rearing its ugly head.

I’ve learned a few things about antisemitism in my 24 years on earth. My various teachers have included: rabbis, academics, book after book after book and professional training in Holocaust education. Yet it’s the personal experiences, not the academic nor professional ones, that have taught me the most how antisemitism continues to impact Jews.

In the fall of 2018, streets from my childhood home, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were plastered onto international news when the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked and 11 congregants murdered. Just under one year later, I went from being on the periphery of antisemitic trauma to being in the center when I survived the Yom Kippur attack in Halle, Germany.

I never asked to belong to what I’ve dubbed the “Survivors’ Club,” though I tend to think it’s better than the alternative. To borrow a biblical phrase (thanks for the inspo, God!) here I am and if you, too, should be here, or if a loved one is here, or a member of your community is here, I hope this offers some perspective.

It’s hard to move on from experiencing an act of antisemitism, whether it happened to you or a loved one or just a fellow Jew. Indeed, many of us survivors will go on to live with PTSD, and just reading an onslaught of headlines can severely affect your mental health. But there are some tips I’ve learned along the way.

With that, here are some suggestions on what to do after being impacted by antisemitism.

1. Lean into the *feels*

Waves of feelings accompany many things in life. This is very much true for an encounter with antisemitism. There isn’t any one right way to feel. What matters most is that your sense of normal and your sense of safety were violated in some way. Making it through that, I’ve found, often comes with some gratitude but more often with rage and anger.

The first few weeks and months might be, contradictorily, the easiest and the hardest time. The attention is often on you as a survivor and people are most willing to help. Yet the adrenaline in your system might still be preventing you from relaxing, from accepting whatever you saw is over. So pull a Jonah the Prophet and call out angrily to God and/or man. Cry into your pillow or into the shoulder of a loved one. Let your mind go numb by watching Netflix for hours on end. Make (and eat) an elaborate dish to distract yourself. Give an impassioned speech to a concerned audience. Whatever you choose to do is the right option for you.

2. Ask for help

It can be hard to ask for help in normal circumstances. It can be even harder (though sometimes easier) after going through an earth-shaking experience. Maybe you don’t want to be a burden on people. Maybe attention has subdued, and you want to be more to people than a victim. People want to help you, especially those who care about you. Allow them to show up for you. Receiving chesed (kindness) can help you heal.

If you’re not sure what you need (I know I don’t always), here are some ideas: meals to eat, stocking the fridge and pantry, laundry washed and folded, contacting mental health professionals, accompaniments to doctor’s appointments or someone to hang out with so you’re not alone.

3. Show up for others, but don’t lose yourself

Right after I survived Halle, I wished I could turn back the clock and erase this experience. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. You can’t undo what happened. However, in surviving you’ve become a witness. You experienced antisemitism, and you’re still here. Should you chose to, you have the chance to show up for others, many of whom are interested in hearing your story. You have a lot to teach and the opportunity to transform how people understand antisemitism and those directly impacted by it. You might do it once, you might do it never, or you might do it consistently. I, for one, have found deep meaning in being able to share my story.

Yet don’t lose yourself. You’re allowed to say no. You’re allowed to keep some things, or everything, private. Boundaries can be healthy, but so can honesty and vulnerability.

4. Accept healing will take time

In the months after Halle, I didn’t think about the long term. I had more practical day-to-day and week-to-week matters to think about, such as how to balance work with therapy, how (and if) I wanted to participate in a trial, and making sure I was eating, exercising, socializing, etc.

Now it’s been over two years since the attack happened and I can see how it continues to impact me. I’ve had so many questions about that moment answered, yet so many questions remain, including ones about who I’ve become and who I continue to be.

Feeling like the aftermath is never finished is normal. And, for better or worse, true. A new normal is found but anniversaries, similar events and traumatic memories have the potential to (temporarily) stop progress in healing. Yet when I’m doing less, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come and how much joy life usually brings me.

5. Lean into Jewish joy and Jewish life

If I was only able to offer one suggestion, this would be it. Too often non-Jews, and even Jews, are quick to highlight experiences of antisemitism rather than experiences of Jewish joy and Jewish life. I know that it can be scary and evenly deadly to be a Jew. Yet that doesn’t have to be our only experience of Judaism!

The beauty of Judaism is that there are so many ways to find meaning, happiness and community in it. Are you interested in ritual? Start lighting Shabbat candles each week and have a cozy dinner for one, two or more than a few while the candles are lit. Maybe you’re curious about Jewish texts — open up Sefaria, a great online resource for Jewish texts, and start learning. Perhaps you want to be more tangibly, more physically Jewish? Wear some Jewish jewelry, whether it’s the Star of David necklace you got years ago, or a new hamsa ring that caught your eye.

These ideas are a chance to go deeper into Judaism and bring more Jewish joy into your life. You can’t build an identity based on spite and rage alone — trust me, I’ve tried. It might feel good at first, but it’s not a sustainable way to live. It takes love and appreciation for the amazing traditions and customs (and foods!) to keep choosing to embrace Judaism most, if not every, day.

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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