When I was a kid, I accidentally wore my Jewish star necklace in a passport photo. My mom didn’t notice until after the photo was taken. That’s the first time I remember being told that some people hate Jews just for being Jews, and some countries would not let me in or out if they knew. Luckily, the passport photo was small enough that the necklace wasn’t visible.
When I first started dating I asked my mom, “do I have to only date Jews?” Her response was that she’ll share what her mother told her: I didn’t have to only date Jews, but 6 million Jews died for being Jewish, which means Jewish family members were taken too soon. If I marry a Jewish person and have Jewish children, I would be doing a mitzvah (good deed.)
In High School, a classmate made a fake myspace profile of me named “Ingrid Jewburger” and talked about turning me into smoke. My family wasn’t surprised that someone could put that evil into the world and explained that this was a lesson about being cautious.
The Jews, collectively, have been in pain. In 2018, a gunman opened fire on the congregation at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jews while they were praying on Shabbos. The act of terror didn’t surprise me or start a new fear for me. Rather, it confirmed a fear that my ancestors had warned me about. It confirmed a fear that the Jewish people have always been training for. As anti semitism continues to rise in the US, many Jews have been asking themselves “will I know when it’s time to run?” and “Have I learned enough from my ancestors about what to look for?”
Just as my parents had explained to me, I find myself explaining to my convert husband to make sure our passports are always up to date and to do our best to have emergency money tucked away. This planning is a trauma response triggered by the intergenerational trauma that holocaust surviving grandparents passed on to their children, and which was then passed on to their grandchildren.
Two nights a year, we gather around a table with our family and read a story about when Jews were slaves in Egypt. We recline with comfort and cushions while taking stock of our privilege. There are so many stories that include “and they tried to kill the Jews.” That’s the knowledge that we carry with us wherever we go. Crises where Jews were enslaved or forced to flee their homes have been traced back for over 2000 years, and Jewish tradition influences us to continuously remember and reflect on the tragedies and oppression our people have survived. Our traditions frame our history as resilient.
Learning about the trauma we inherit from our parents and grandparents teaches values in anti-bigotry because it exposes us to the fact that even small acts of anti semitism can have dangerous systematic implications. There is a concept in Judaism called Tikkun Olam, which translates to “repair the world.” Tikkun Olam is the motivation behind much of Jewish giving and social activism, because responsibility is on both the Jewish individual and on the Jewish people as a unified community to do good for this world. Along that same logic, Jewish people can’t be separated from the bad behavior of individual Jews. There’s an understanding among Jewish communities that when one Jewish person acts badly, it creates risk for hatred of all Jews. Just look back at the scandal of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. His crimes served as a “lighting-rod for anti-semitism,” fueling harmful stereotypes that date back to biblical times, encouraging “acceptable” Jewish bias. Our actions speak on behalf of many and have lasting impact, so we must work to be good to the world so the world sees the Jewish people as good.
16 year old, Adam Garvey, understands Tikkun Olam as a direct call to support Black Lives Matter because “standing up against injustice is a huge part of Jewish values.” Garvey understands that policy change and being vocal against bigotry is positive representation of Jewish core beliefs. He’s using his statement “Tikkun Olam means Black Lives Matter” to raise funds for the NAACP.
As protests soar across the US (and the world,) it’s undeniable that white consciousness of racial injustice is growing. The similarities between Black trauma and Jewish trauma are palpable. Black people demand we Say Their Names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade as they mourn over the same sentiment that Jews have expressed, that they’re not surprised but rather tired and rightfully angry.
In Jewish history, numbers hold symbolic value. Romans destroyed a Jewish temple and the oil menorah burnt miraculously for eight nights. Jews wandered the desert displaced for 40 years. Six million Jews were tortured and murdered during a holocaust, creating a need for the word “genocide.”
The history of racism against Black people has some astounding numbers, too. 246 years of slavery in America. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Black mothers are 3.2 times more likely to die during childbirth than white mothers. Jews can be racist against other Jews, too. In Israel, 90% of Ethiopian Jewish youth convicted by the court were sentenced to imprisonment, compared to one-third of other Jewish youth. Racial Trauma plagues a community when they have to gather statistical data about their race being systematically and lethally oppressed to prove theres is a national and system-wide problem, while simultaneously having to demand to be treated as a person and not a number. Monnica T. Williams, PhD, ABPP says racial trauma is the reason why people of color have a higher rate of PTSD than white Americans.
The fear Jews hold is internalized because our intergenerational trauma has trained us that we always need to exercise a degree of censorship on our Jewishness, to protect us from possible anti semitism. It’s as little as knowing I shouldn’t wear a star of David necklace in a passport photo and the thought that if the wrong person knew we were Jewish, they might come after us, too.
The keyword in knowing that Jews experience oppression differently than Black people is “too,” as we are reminded every day that Black lives are stolen at a disproportionate rate while white Jews benefit from our privilege. Our own internalized fear makes racial injustice feel so personal, especially if you’re a Black Jewish person who has to navigate the fear of anti semitism, racial injustice at a national scale, AND micro-aggressions from your own Jewish community. Addressing these differences are instrumental within activism for policy change because they afford white Jews privilege that can be used to uplift Black people, which includes Black Jews. We may all share similar fears about white supremacy, but we have unequal power in social agency.
Judaism could be considered a religion and a culture, with a geopolitical force. Diaspora (which Black people have also experienced in their history,) created a racially diverse Jewish people, which has made the Jewish community torn on whether anti semitism is racism. Intergenerational oppression has occurred differently for Jewish people than Black people and other people of color, as many of us are able to walk in public without being detected as Jews. At the same time the media was quick to blame Jewish people for the spread of Covid, someone explained to me, “I didn’t know you were Jewish! You don’t look Jewish!”
Jewish people can be riddled with fear, planning for the next time we have to run from something, and yet so many of my friends have told me they’d like to be Jewish. I find myself repeatedly explaining to my convert husband that we need to have exit strategies, just in case. While Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song plays for laughs sandwiched between sets of a dozen Christmas jingles: “All Jewish people are funny and rich!” with no recognition that there’s lifelong planning to feel safe as a proud Jew in the world.
When I first saw white people sharing the compassionate quote, “I understand that I’ll never understand, but I stand with you,” I felt like I did have some understanding. After some self-reflection, I recognized that though I was taught to be alert for signs of anti semitism, it doesn’t compare to a black mother training her black child how to talk to those who protect and serve not to shoot you for existing.
I can acknowledge my privilege and that I benefit from racism as a white person, while also understanding that as a Jewish person, I experience forms of oppression.
Many well-meaning Pittsburghers shared a Pittsburgh Strong Jewish graphic after the Tree of Life shooting, yet I’m still meeting people who think I’m the first Jewish person they’ve ever met. It makes me wonder, is anti semitism less of a threat than racism or is the violence labeled less as a hate crime because who knows the face of a Jew? I’m still trying to understand this phenomena, but I think it speaks to a level of privilege that allows me to censor my Judaism to protect me from the dangers of anti semitism.
We have a reoccurring joke in my house: When examining the Torah or Jewish history, the Jews are always being hunted. “What a surprise!” one of us will exclaim. “Haman wanted all the Jews dead!” I can understand that there’s no humor in a sarcastic joke like that for Black people, when white Jewish people have a dark history of minstrel shows and blackface. Though Jewish and Black people have experienced similar crises and oppression, white Jews have to own up that we’ve used our privilege to keep Black people down in social equity.
At the height of my fear in 2018, I wrote “There are times where the world seems so small, but in these times of crisis it feels gigantic. It feels scary and unpredictable. Each time someone sings a song of peace or a Jew leaves their house even though they’re scared, the world gets smaller and more comfortable again.”
For Black people mourning lives that shouldn’t have been taken, there is no place proven to be safe for them. They’re pulled from their cars, held down and suffocated in the streets, and shot while they’re sleeping in bed.
For Jews, we call on our ancestors to teach us how to stay safe.
Molly S. Castelloe Ph.D. says, “Transgenerational transmissions take on life in our in dreams, in acting out, in ““life lessons”” given in turns of phrase and taught us by our family. Discovering transmission means coming to know and tell a larger narrative, one from the preceding generation.” We read the Torah or listen to our grandparents for experiences on how to protect ourselves when people come for us. Black crisis is happening right now, in front of our eyes, relentlessly for more than 400 years. While our plight has similar themes from diaspora to micro-aggression, it is not the same. They’re not holding life lessons from their parents and looking out for a possibly dangerous white person that they may encounter. Hundreds of years of consistent community crises at a universal, unconditional level means that there are no trustworthy white people.
Internalized and intergenerational trauma gives Jewish people the unique ability to transfer our learned coping to lift up Black folks. Since Jews have experienced similar community violence and oppression across generations, we have the tools to educate white people about racism so that Black people don’t have to carry that labor. We have an understanding of mourning the result of large-scale hatred, so we can hold space and take on some of the work. All the while, we must recognize that Black people who are also Jewish carry the weight of thousands of years of this trauma, without specific hashtag activism to support support them.
White Jews owe black people reparations because we’ve had a hand in racism and have benefited from it. White Jews should be a source of compassion and a proponent of social change in support of all Black people with direct donations, emotional energy, and sharing the intergenerational healing we’ve learned from our story-telling traditions. Tikkun Olam DOES mean that not only do Black Lives Matter, but that any other viewpoint is against Jewish ethics and therefore, a Jewish issue.