My Jewish Trauma

On learning to finally admit that my experiences in a Jewish community traumatized me.

“So why are you doing this?” she asked me.

It was a session at this fellowship that I’m part of.  For rabbinic entrepreneurs.  She didn’t want to know about my project (this website you’re reading now), she wanted to know about me.  Why I decided to do the project.

I looked down at the notes I had written for the exercise.

“Because the Jewish world needs to be re-created it into a place where souls matter more than Judaism” was my response.

I thought it was pretty good, deeper than my usual response, which usually was something general about creativity and creative Jews.

“Okay,” she said, clearly unsatisfied, “But that’s about the Jewish world at large.  Why does it matter to you that the Jewish world changes like this?”

I thought for a moment, and then the words just kind of spilled out of me.  It reminded me of moments in therapy, when words I hadn’t even known were inside of me would suddenly appear out of thin air when the right question was asked.

“Because I know what it’s like for people to care more about my Judaism than about me.  I know what it’s like for a community to treat me like that.”

She nodded, but she clearly wanted more.

“So why does that motivate you to make something for others?  Why not just leave?”

I was on a roll now.

“Because it was traumatizing,” I said, saying it with conviction, as if I had known it all along even though I had never said it out loud, or even to myself, “And I know that what I experienced was a smaller version of what others have gone through.  If I feel so traumatized, then there are others who have even worse experiences. And there are others who may not have been traumatized, but are going through pain and need to be nurtured. All these people need to be nurtured. So I want to do that.”

The room was quiet.  And I was surprised, for a moment, at how I was about to choke up.  Was I really going to cry at this professional meeting around these accomplished leaders?

It stopped there, though.  Rather than pushing me further, she nodded at me.

“Well done.  Much more direct.  And much more focused on you, as opposed to your project.  That’s the point here.”

Me

Me.  I had spent years writing about myself, examining myself.  It was basically the theme of my writing here and on my blog.  And then my writing started to shift.  I started writing op-eds.  I started focusing more on fighting battles that I thought needed my voice.

For a while, the only truly personal writing I was doing was my memoir about my time in college, when I had a manic episode, discovered I was bipolar, and started on the path to orthodox observance.

So I was writing about a trauma, but it was a trauma that I had been processing for a long time.  One that I had very much come to peace with, and now looked back on as a source of strength.

But this other thing?  This Jewish trauma? Was it real?  Could it be as serious as I thought it was, to the point that it was informing my work and my life in ways I hadn’t identified up until now?

What Happened

For so long, it seemed to me just like one of the many controversies I had found myself caught up in as a writer finding his way in the orthodox world.  And I couldn’t help but think of it as intermingled with the other moments of disillusionment I had with the Crown Heights Chabad community, which up to that point had already let me down in so many ways.  As recently as a month or two ago, I had written about it all like it was just one story.

But that conversation at my fellowship had changed something in me.  Woken me up to something I had not wanted to face.

The eruv controversy.  Something I’ve written about so much already, that it almost seems silly to return to it.

To most people, it was a big deal but a relatively minor incident.  A big controversy, but just another one in a community that seems to jump from controversy to controversy seemingly at random.

But for me, it was different.  It was the moment that I now understand made me go from disillusioned to scarred.

An eruv in Crown Heights was always a controversial idea.  Something the Rebbe had been vehemently against. Something the ravs of the community had steadfastly stood against in his absence.

But to the modern orthodox community, which I had joined only months earlier, these considerations simply weren’t relevant.  So they built it, knowing there would be a backlash, but not realizing just quite what they would unleash.

What can I write that I haven’t said before?  About how I was stuck in the middle because I was still well-known in the community as a Chabadnik?  About how the leading rabbis of the community called anyone who used it “worse than Reform Jews”? About how they didn’t say a word as their community members spit on people using the eruv in the streets, yelled at them, followed them into shul, and regularly vandalized the eruv?

No, that wasn’t the essence of it for me, and it’s not what came up in my mind when I was pushed to face that this was a traumatic experience.

It was the way my friends and the leaders I knew reacted.  The way they attacked me as if I was a threat. Or the way they watched quietly as it all happened, trying to stay out of it.  Or the way the only ones who did support me would message me privately, afraid to rile the others.

It felt like a horror movie, where everyone you know suddenly turns out to be different. Friends one moment, enemies the next.  Not just disagreeing, but actively, sometimes literally, telling us to either conform or leave.

Chabad community was all I had known.  Even as I had started attending a modern orthodox synagogue and practicing different forms of Judaism, Chabad had been my spiritual home.  Where Hasidus flowed like wine. Where farbrengens could change a life in one night. Where so many other journeyers had found their place.

And so, when all the other controversies had occurred, I found myself simply admitting that the place had problems.  When it felt like everything was turning inside-out, it was no longer about problems.  It was about realizing that my home had never really been my home.  Realizing that they didn’t really want me as I was, and if I stuck to who I was, I’d be considered a danger and treated as such.  And anyone who dared take my side would either receive the same treatment or would have to reach out to me in a sort of underground manner.

That is what trauma feels like.  Your life is turned inside out. The world you once recognized is suddenly and completely different.  The things you could depend on are suddenly gone. Instability reigns. And it feels like there is just nothing you can do to fix it.

The Therapist

“So… do you think ‘trauma’ is the right word for it?” I asked, for some reason afraid.  I couldn’t help but wonder… was I just exaggerating it? How could I use such a word when others have used it for so many other horrific things?  Maybe I was just bitter, maybe I was just…

“Yes, I think  so,” he said without hesitation.

I took a deep breath.  It was. It was. So why did I feel… better?  Why was it helpful to have this word to use?

“It’s helpful to think of it this way,” he went on even as these thoughts were entering my mind, “Understanding painful moments in our lives is one of the first step towards healing them.  I can tell you, I’ve had them myself, and the more I understood them, the better equipped I was to handle them.

“I mean, I fought in Vietnam, but there were things like traumatic experiences at work that I had to grapple with too.  It’s amazing just how much our minds can be affected by the world around us.”

I nodded.

“It’s weird,” I said, “Just last week, thousands of people were attacking me because of an interaction on Twitter.  It hardly bothered me. At least compared to what happened with the eruv.”

“Well, that makes sense,” my therapist responded, “That was your world.”

It was my world.  My world.

When he put it in those words, it all suddenly made even more sense to me.

To be religious, and to join a religious community, means that we have entered a place that we literally see as our entire world.  When we’re in such communities, people from outside can attack us and we may feel fine. But when our communities turn on us, it feels like the world itself is collapsing.

The Other One

In my work building a creative community in Brooklyn, I had started to connect with others who felt like me.  Some who had left. Some who had stayed.

And recently, a friend had put me in touch with some of the older population of Jews who had dealt with this.  People in their 60s and 70s who were almost like the past generation of Hevrians, the people who had tried so hard to fit into some part of the Jewish world, and who ended up unable to.

For many of them, the story was quite similar.  They were out of the box. They had tried for years, most of them for decades, to build a niche in the Jewish world.  And then, at some point, they simply could not handle it anymore.

It scared me to hear their stories.  To know that there were people who desperately wanted to be part of the Jewish world, and who had so much to offer the Jewish world, and yet had been pushed out (if not consciously then simply by creating an environment so inhospitable to their creativity that they could never carve out a niche).

But there was one conversation in particular that dug something deep into me.

It was a week after the conversation with my therapist.  I was still coming to terms with the word trauma, and that it had not just happened once in my life (I had so desperately wanted to believe that my manic episode and near death experience was the only trauma I had experienced in my life), and so much of what I had spoken about with him had felt almost like a dream.

The man I was speaking to was telling me about his own struggles.

“I moved three times.  Three times. Because we kept thinking that if we found a better community, the problems we had seen couldn’t possibly exist elsewhere.  But wherever we moved, it just didn’t work.”

It was hard to hear.  Hard to know that for some in the orthodox world, this much work and time and energy is put into making a home for their families and that even after all that, they could not find their place.  But it also wasn’t surprising.

But then he said something that jolted me on a deeper level.

“They traumatized me.  They traumatized me.”

For the last few months, I had been grappling to admit the words to myself.  That a community could traumatize a person, that such people can truly have that much power over another (because we let them, sadly), that the place and people I loved could hurt that deeply.

And suddenly, a week later, here was a man telling me the exact same thing.  It felt like God was talking to me.

I told him about my experience, and how amazed I was that he was sharing this with me a week after my conversation with my therapist.

“Of course.  Of course. Look, it’s good that you’re realizing this now.  It will help you heal quicker. It will help you build what you’re building with less baggage.”

I found myself nodding along even though he couldn’t see.  That was what felt like had been happening for so long: an invisible weight dragging me down into the muck and suffocating me.  Causing me to think more about the muck than about the sky above.

“It’s time for us to move past it.  To create something different.

“I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life trying to fit into an old world that would never accept me.  I’ve probably got only 20 more years left. So for these last 20 years, I don’t want to look back anymore.  I want to build, and grow, and move past it all. I want to build a Jewish world for people like me.”

And as I listened, I couldn’t help but think how, despite all the pain I had been holding onto, despite all the weight I had been carrying, I was blessed.

Some people carry that same weight and pain for 20 years.  Some for their entire lives. Some don’t even know what they’re carrying.  Some transform that pain into spite and lose themselves in it. Others give up… in the worst ways.

Here was God now presenting me with an alternative.  An early opportunity to right the pains of my past by building a new future.

I don’t want to live the next 20 years of my life suffering, trying to fit into a world that will never accept me.  I want to spend them, and the ones after, creating a Jewish world for the people like me, and building it together with them.

Not just for others.  But for myself.

Because the thing I have learned in that discussion was that for men like the one I spoke to, and for people like me, the issue was never one of our commitment to our Judaism.  We love it. That’s what causes our pain, in fact.

How much easier it would be if we could just let it go! If we could say we no longer believed, and found another world to enter.

But that would be another traumatizing experience, one where we would give up the love of our lives because others had told us we weren’t allowed to hold it and have our own unique relationship with it.

And so, the only answer is to build ourselves something new.  Something for us. Whatever it may be.

Who knows what it will be.  What it will look like. Or if it will even succeed.

But one thing I do know is that the man’s words have not left me.

“So for these last 20 years, I don’t want to look back anymore.  I want to build, and grow, and move past it all. I want to build a Jewish world for people like me.”

It is perhaps not what we create that matters, in other words.  But how we spend the time we have left in this world. Will it be spent trying to fit into the world of others?  Will it be spent painfully agonizing over what we have lost? Or will it be spent building, creating, imagining?

As far as I know, there is only one option that helps us deal with trauma.