Wrestling with Fear as a Jewish Therapist

Finding the Light in the Darkness

Mother holding child / Photo by Anastasiia Chaikovska

It’s 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, and I’m checking the local news online. My key search terms are Pittsburgh temple threats jihad. Even as I stare at the filling screen, I’m doubting the usefulness of this. Whatever it finds, can Google really tell me whether or not it’s safe to send my son to Hebrew School in two hours?

I turn away and reach toward the shelf with the breakfast foods, weighing Lucky Charms against instant oatmeal. I grab the box with the leprechaun. Today seems like a good day for his favorite cereal.

As I put his bowl on the kitchen table, I think about the attack that happened here five years ago, when 11 members of The Tree of Life Synagogue were slain. Although that was before we moved to the city, the sadness and fear tied to that day is still visceral throughout the entire Jewish community. I wonder, Would an attack happen here twice?

Given all that’s going on in the world, I wonder if there will be a police presence at the temple today. The police were there for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; surely they’ll be there today. Should I talk to my son about it, so it’s not a surprise if law enforcement shows up? What do I say? I text a friend who might know. She responds almost instantaneously, and we both agree, with heavy hearts—it shouldn’t surprise him. These kids are used to seeing police at temple.

I’m packing up our things when it occurs to me, His classroom is closest to the door. If there’s an attack, will they go there first? There’s a sudden rush of adrenaline through my body, and I’m instantly lightheaded. Panic is beginning to set in.

In the car, on our way to the temple, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” blares through the speakers and the two of us sing along, just as we would any other Sunday. But as we get closer to the entrance, my heart is in my throat. I can practically feel a target growing on my back. My eyes zero in on the cream-colored building ahead as I look for … Police? Protestors? A burning building? I don’t even know what I’m expecting to see. Ever since the so-called day of jihad, where Jews around the world were to be attacked, I’ve been fearing something like this.

But what I find is nothing. There are no police. No smoke. No big scene. Everything is exactly as it’s been every other day. The line of minivans and SUVs wraps around the side of the building as little heads with messy hair pop out of cars, making their way inside. There’s Rabbi Avi, standing in his usual spot waiting to greet everyone. He’s wearing a donut hat; last week it was a squid. The kids giggle as they walk by him. There’s a smile on the Rabbi’s face. How is everything so normal when I feel like the world has been turned upside down?

My son gives me a brief hug and hops out the door. I see him offer a quick, “Hi Sam!” to the security guard. I can’t help but think about the Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost their children to warfare in the past few weeks. The faces of the kidnapped and the bodies of the dead flash through my mind. What did their goodbye look like? I shudder, shaking my head to clear the thought. He’ll be fine. I glance at the clock, 9:30 a.m. The countdown to 12 p.m., when I can bring him home and breathe again, begins.

I feel off in a way I can’t put my finger on. Is it sadness? Yes. Concern? Definitely. There’s an unfamiliar pressure around my brain that’s been building since Hamas’s attack last month, like there’s not enough room in my skull for everything that’s inside it. My worry isn’t just for my family, it’s for something much bigger. I worry for all Jews around the world who are bearing witness to scenes we were promised would never again occur. I worry for the Israelis and Palestinians grieving the loss of their loved ones while they live in fear of what might come next. I worry for humanity. How much pain, hate, death, and destruction can we take before it breaks us?

Over the past weeks I have, against my better judgement, tirelessly consumed information from news outlets, social media, and friends. I know I’ve taken in more than I can handle. I’ve seen things I can’t unsee, and heard things I can’t unhear. I’ve learned a lot, questioned a lot, cried a lot. I’ve tried, as many others have, to make sense of what’s happening, but have only grown more confused. I am, however, unequivocally clear on one thing: at least in this moment, I’m afraid to be Jewish. The guilt and shame I feel admitting this is crushing.

This fear appeared one other time in my life when, as an eight-year-old, I learned about the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. I remember an instantaneous experience of fear, and the terrifying thought that it would happen again. My father, a lawyer and the most reason-oriented person I know, had a well-thought-out argument for why it would never happen again, and certainly would not happen here. While his words comforted me, I also started to be a bit quieter about being a Jew.

Practicing Through It All

As most of us have come to realize over the span of our careers, being a therapist isn’t a job that can easily stop because we’re having a tough time. There are constant calculations: Can I handle this without it impacting my work? Is my stress more important than theirs? Can I afford to not see clients this week?

I keep a small practice and, while I’m more than certain my clients would be fine if I needed to miss a day, I feel a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to their mental health journey. I work primarily with severe anxiety, things like OCD and treatment-resistant anxiety. Most of my clients present not just with their own anxiety but with an overwhelming fear that things might not get better.

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched the world divisively erupt around this war, I’ve kept a close watch on different personal and professional factors—my emotional capacity, my client’s needs, where we are in the treatment process—and decided not to cancel appointments. I hoped the war wouldn’t come up in any of my sessions—and, thankfully, it didn’t. I don’t know how I would’ve handled it if it had.

Then last Tuesday, when I realized my final session of the week was with a potential new client, I found myself flooded with anxiety. As my heart pounded and heat creeped up my neck, I tried to make sense of my worry. What if this person I know nothing about brings up the war? Does he know I’m Jewish? What if he says something antisemitic? Am I in the right headspace to navigate that? My mind went into overdrive—What do I know about this man? Name (Michael), age (35) occupation (lawyer) reason for seeking treatment (possible OCD). With an inexplicable certainty, I was anticipating a confrontation and I tried to recall how I’d worked with antagonistic clients in the past. What had my training taught me about this?

At 6:59 p.m., I signed into my video platform and Michael’s face filled the screen. He was dressed casually in an Aerosmith t-shirt. What was I expecting? A Nazi flag? I paused just a moment to center myself before diving into my typical first-session spiel: welcome, plans for the session, confidentiality, and so on. I felt my heart continue to pound through my chest as I asked Michael to share with me what brings him to therapy. I was bracing, for what? I moved my hand over my heart, just for a moment: a gentle reassurance to my body that it was safe. Michael, unaware of my panic, looked up from his hands and said, “I’m pretty sure I have OCD.”

Okay, this is familiar. I can do this. “Tell me more,” I responded.

Michael told me about his overwhelming fear of contaminating his positive memories with his wife. I’ve worked with OCD for over a decade and this presentation was new to me—I needed to stay focused. He shared that any time he thinks about a positive memory, intrusive thoughts enter his mind. Slut. Whore. Tears appeared at the corner of his eyes. “I’m so ashamed,” he admitted before going on to tell me about his exhausting efforts to “rethink” the memories “the right way.” “It can take hours,” he said. His agony and exhaustion were visceral.

I stayed with him in the moment, undistracted, feeling with him, guiding him, and before I knew it, we were wrapping up the session with a plan to meet again next week. It’s not until hours later, after I’ve written my notes and joined my family for dinner, that I remembered my worry before the session. Michael never said a thing about the war. He never mentioned the attacks or asked me anything about myself. In fact, when I’d asked if there was anything he thought I should know about his own identities, he’d simply said, “Not really.” Nothing happened. It was just like any other session.

It’s taken me some time to sort out what I was so afraid of before that session with Michael. I’ve been patient, and the answer has slowly revealed itself to me: in the torn down posters of kidnapped children, in trending pro-Nazi hashtags, in the murder of a Jewish woman in Lyon, and in the celebrations of Hamas’ terrorism on university campuses. I see the swastikas drawn on buildings and hear the chants that wish Jews back to the gas chambers. My fear is that this is what it feels like when transgenerational trauma and present-day trauma collide.

It’s now been more than a month since Hamas launched its horrific attack on Israel—and my sense of fear—for myself, my family, the Jewish community, the world—has only intensified. Protests have become increasingly contentious and often violent. The historic and political concerns on both sides seem to be contaminating our standards of how we treat one another. I carry a general sense of uncertainty and hypervigilance into every interaction I have, familiar or unfamiliar. Despite how well I know my current clients, I’m still anxious as I go into each session. I’m hesitant to talk to my friends about the way I feel, suddenly uncertain of how they may respond. The question, “How are you?” somehow feels dangerous to answer truthfully. I’m questioning whether I’ll let my son decorate our front window for Hannukah this year. Is it too risky? I’m even questioning writing this article.

And yet, each day continues to go on just like any other day. As of now, nothing has happened at our synagogue. The five-year memorial event for the Tree of Life went on without an issue. I haven’t seen anything antisemitic written on the doors or windows of shops I’ve walked by. And yet my fear remains, and I find myself increasingly holding my breath—waiting, preparing. I’ve now driven my son to Hebrew School every Sunday since the start of the crisis, and I still watch the clock nervously until I can pick him up. I see my clients as scheduled every week, although I often find myself self-consciously hiding the delicate gold Star of David I wear around my neck. And after a brief conversation with my husband, we decided to keep the Hannukah decorations away from the windows this year.

The world feels smaller and the attacks against Jews across the globe feel close to home. Every tagged door hurts as if it’s my own, every antisemitic word rings in my ears. “Never Again” feels more like a question than a statement.

To find guidance and, perhaps, comfort, I’ve been drawn to the powerful voices of the survivors of the Holocaust. One voice in particular, Dr. Edith Edger, has been inspiring. In a recent post, she said: This is the darkness. And our job is to find the light. Within ourselves and within others. Even when it feels impossible.

I feel very much in the darkness right now, but I’m not the scared eight-year-old I once was. I’ve faced some of life’s biggest challenges with fortitude. I’ve navigated difficult conversations—ones where my beliefs have been in stark contrast to another’s—without sacrificing respect or dignity. I’ve spent my career honing the ability to hold space for others without forfeiting the space I hold for myself. I hope I can draw on these experiences to find the light, both in myself and in others. And I hope that one day soon, the world will find its way there too.

Photo by Anastasiia Chaikovska/Pexels

Anna Lock

Anna Lock, PsyD, is the clinical director at Psychotherapy Networker.