For the last six months or so, I’ve been struggling with how to deal with Trump supporters. People that were my friends, people that were my neighbors, people who shared my Jewish soul.
A part of me that was impossible to ignore told me that whatever was a “legitimate” grievance that caused them to support this man, anyone who backed him was guilty of a grave moral failure. Not one that defined them, God forbid. But the act itself was a horrific one in my eyes, and I simply couldn’t ignore that feeling. Any argument made for Trump came at the expense of many, many other people. I saw no way to see past that.
And so I became obsessed with speaking to them, or “speaking up.” Protesting. Fighting.
Over and over I did this, on my Facebook page, Pop Chassid (my blog), and face to face. Because of my zeal, I lost friends, I alienated fans of my writing, I divided Jews I had once united.
Many of us have experienced some of this on some level, some sort of alienation or fear or need to scream at those nearby.
And for all of us, I think a struggle has developed since Trump won the election: was it worth it? And how do we speak now? Should we be reaching out to Trump supporters? Hoping that we were wrong? Or should we double the efforts of our angry crusade?
I started to get an inkling of how things needed to change, both for me and others, when I sat in shul on Yom Kippur, trying with all my heart to focus on praying, but every now and then drifting into thoughts about regrets from the past year.
I was struck about how the most I had put out over the months leading up to that point were social media posts. Reactive, angry ones. Ones that properly expressed my pain and fears, but that felt, in the end, futile.
There were no essays coming from me anymore. Just these momentary burst of energy.
They were posts, I came to realize, that actually existed because of my feeling of powerlessness. This election has felt like a surging ocean, one in which the immorality of a large group of people would soon drown us all.
I truly felt, in some part of myself, that none of this made a difference. That I was posting more as a sort of moral flag in the ground, a declaration that to be a good, decent citizen, you had to take a stand against this evil.
But I still didn’t feel like I was making a difference. I just felt like I was yelling into the wind, my voice drifting away like so many others. And it got worse as I saw how intractable people could be. Towards the end, when he was accused by more than ten women of sexual abuse, and audio of him bragging about it came out, and people still stood by him, I started to realize just how impossible this had become.
And so I lashed out, grew despondent and angry, and started losing trust in the people near me.
On that Yom Kippur, as I sat listening to the chazan’s voice echo through the hall, I had my first moment of creative teshuva. Of realizing that my speaking up was actually an act of disempowerment. That sometimes, talking can be just as empty and reactive as silence.
And I finally understood how people become trolls online: it takes a profound sense of hopelessness and voicelessness to spend your time throwing anger onto the internet over and over again. It takes a sense of existential despair not to worry about how you may be hurting others with your words. These trolls online, they have just gone all the way down the rabbit hole of hopelessness.
I would not let it happen to me.
As the weeks after Yom Kippur passed, and I continued posting in that old style, I began to observe how and why I was moved to post.
First, it was almost always reactive. I would read something that angered me, and I would let loose. The reason was simple: I was angry because I was afraid. I was angry because I felt hopeless. And to post something gave me a momentary sense of control.
Second, I rarely, if ever, took a step back to think about things on a deeper level. Taking a step back, I felt, would open me up to just how scared I was. It might remind me that this truly was all hopeless and scary. So, I focused on those few reactive moments and then tried to live the rest of my life as if none of this was happening.
Third, because I thought it was all hopeless, I didn’t bother to think of big ideas, projects, or even essays, that would be constructive. Why would I do something grand and beautiful if it wouldn’t make a difference? I wasn’t trying to make a difference, I was just trying to keep my dignity. Putting my heart into a project would do the same as taking a step back: open me up to the hopelessness on a grander scale.
I couldn’t believe it. Reflecting on it, I realized how I was living the opposite way that I had been trying to tell people to live for most of my adult life. The message I believed, the message I spread, was that no matter how hopeless or crazy things are, we can always do something. Maybe just for ourselves or those around us. Hashem doesn’t measure our goodness in how big we are, but in the fact that we invest in good deeply, with all our neshamas.
I thought of projects I had done, especially a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness for Israel that everyone told me at the time was impossible. It started off with a goal of $120,000, with the intent of putting a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest its ignoring the amount of Israelis killed daily back in October. I didn’t care that it seemed impossible: I wanted the people who I knew who were complaining about Israel’s lack of coverage to do more than complain. I wanted them to feel empowered, strong, and like their voices mattered.
Against all odds, the campaign gained steam. And, in only a day or two, we had raised about $15,000. Something that was far from the $120,000 that we needed, but that was enough to help people feel like we were doing something, we were accomplishing something.
And then a miracle happened: StandWithUs, an organization that fights for Israel, reached out to me. They wanted to sponsor the campaign. By partnering, we could use their nonprofit status and we could do an ad for only $30,000. In a matter of the few hours it took to connect and discuss, we had jumped from being 10% of the way to our goal to being halfway there.
In two days, we reached our goal. And surpassed it. That Saturday, a full-page ad appeared on the fifth page of the New York Times, sharing a list of all the incidences in Israel that they had failed to cover, with a message from those of us who had backed the campaign.
A lot of people wondered if the campaign “made a difference.” I didn’t care either way. What mattered to me is that all of us who felt hopeless did something. And the hope it put in our hearts was no small thing: in fact, it was everything.
Looking back on that campaign, I realized how I had been thinking of all this wrong from the beginning: for most of the months before the election, I was wondering whether I should write at all. I kept trying to shut up, to just let it go, but I couldn’t.
What I didn’t realize was that there was a third option. It wasn’t about speaking or not speaking. It was about reacting or creating.
Silence and speaking are often the same reaction, but manifested differently. When we feel like a cause is hopeless, we either clam up, focusing on what we can control, or speak reactively, for the same reasons I did when Trump was running.
Two days before the election, I wrote a journal entry where I reflected on all this. I was expecting Hillary to win, as was the entire world, and I was writing about my regrets in how I had communicated my fears during the election.
I was surprised to see that I really didn’t mind losing friends. I didn’t mind that people who had followed me for inspiration were now scratching their heads over me, some of them even messaging me to see if I was okay. I didn’t mind that much of my fanbase had moved on.
All of these things had happened when I did my Israel campaign. I had many liberal followers who were shocked that I was defending Israel so strongly, and they warned me that I would lose them if I kept posting. I didn’t care, I was empowered, and I was empowering others. That’s what mattered in my mind.
What I regretted was feeling hopeless. I didn’t empower myself. I didn’t empower others. I was happy that I had helped some people feel less alone in their pain and anger, but I felt like I could have helped them more if I had myself felt a feeling of strength and hope.
As I wrote that entry, I started to meditate on ideas I would have tried to implement if I had empowered myself. In a matter of five minutes, I came up with ten ideas, from a site to support the people who were experiencing “Trump Anxiety” to essays I wish I had written.
I was sad. Sad that I had not tried these things, had not felt that strength. I resolved that after Hillary was elected, I would remember to be more empowered if something, God forbid, happened that was as bad as the potential of Trump getting elected.
Then Trump was elected. I spent the night of the election watching it all unfold in horror. Like so many people, I was posting on social media incessantly, trying vainly to connect with people who were also afraid. That feeling of hopelessness was back. It was taking me over. And I could see it was happening to those around me as well.
In the middle of the night, as it was setting in that this would actually happen, my wife, Rivka and I had a chat.
We spoke of our fears, of our shock. But Rivka had a message she wanted to share with me: she reminded me of the words I had told her about empowerment. How Hashem had given me strength to unite people. How we together had envisioned a world of creative Jews and helped make it happen. She told me that we were not powerless, and that, rather, Hashem had clearly put us in this situation to help in whatever way we could.
I thought back to my journal entry. I thought back to Yom Kippur. I thought back to the hopelessness and then the hope of that crowdfunding campaign for Israel.
And I realized she was right. That this truly was a disaster, but on a personal level, I could find an opportunity in it.
The Rambam says that teshuva happens when we are put in exactly the same situation we were in when we first sinned and we make a different choice. I wasn’t sure if I would succeed, but I was sure of something: this was an opportunity for teshuva. This was an opportunity to focus on empowerment. This was an opportunity to have hope again and to give it to others.
I will not shut up about Trump, but I also won’t live in fear again. I won’t allow the orange man to cripple me again.
I won’t just speak. I will create. And I will, as always, encourage others to as well.
If you’d like to create with me, please contact me. I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.