Jewish communal professionals offer support while tending to their own needs
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Israel at warJewish professionals face anxiety due to war with Hamas

Jewish communal professionals offer support while tending to their own needs

In a community, she said, it’s essential for people to find a connection and not feel isolated or lonely.

Jewish Family and Community Services. The organization is just one attempting to serve the community during times of anxiety and stress. It's professional's mental health though, might not be so quickly considered. 
(Photo provided by Jewish Family and Community Services)
Jewish Family and Community Services. The organization is just one attempting to serve the community during times of anxiety and stress. It's professional's mental health though, might not be so quickly considered. (Photo provided by Jewish Family and Community Services)

Since Oct. 7, Debbie Swartz has focused on what she can do to help.

As the coordinator of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Parntership2Gether program, Swartz is well aware of how Hamas’ terror attack has affected the Jewish community and Israel. At least two people from Pittsburgh’s partnership region in Karmiel/Misgav were taken hostage. One, Roni Krivoi, a Russian-Israeli, was released in a side deal not part of the Israel-Hamas negotiations. Another is still in Gaza.

“It has been stressful,” Swartz said. “But I try to remember that, even though it’s personal for me, too, this is not just about me. This is about the Jewish people and our country, our homeland. So, I try to remind myself on really tough days that’s it’s been heartbreaking, what’s happened to the hostages. I’m thinking about them all the time.”

Swartz, like other Jewish professionals, has dealt with the anxiety accompanying her position since the war between Hamas and Israel began.

Swartz is married to another Jewish professional, Rabbi Howie Stein of Temple B’nai Israel, who also has fielded questions and concerns from his congregation.

“It’s definitely been high stress in our house,” she said.

She is concentrating on the things she can do through her work to help.

“That means connecting Pittsburgh with Israel,” she said.

When not doing that work, Swartz tries to be present in the moments she shares with her husband and daughter. The Pittsburgh community, she noted, is lucky to have strong resources available to professionals who might be experiencing mental fatigue from the war.

JPro, a national group that aims to help people who work in the Jewish nonprofit sector build their skills and advance their careers, has resources for professionals who work in the Jewish community and offers a place for those professionals to share concerns about the current crisis with colleagues from across the country, Swartz said.

Locally, she said, there are many resources available. Since the 2018 antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life building, ample mental health resources have been offered by the Federation, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services and the 10.27 Healing Partnership, among other organizations.

The Hamas attack, coming just three weeks before the five-year commemoration of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, complicated the emotions of many, JFCS Clinical Director Stefanie Small explained.

“Some of my therapists have told me, when we’re dealing with Oct. 27, or everyday life, each person presents a little differently, each person has a different set of issues,” she said. “When the Oct. 7 war started, all of our clients basically had the same issues. So, we’re hearing it hour after hour after hour, which is very difficult for therapists, who are feeling it themselves, to handle long-term. There’s no time to refill our pitchers.”

Small noted that the antisemitism triggered by the war compounded the stress her staff was dealing with as the Oct. 27 commemoration approached. And all of this came on the heels of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial.

“It’s not just my therapists; it’s therapists all over the city who are carrying this burden,” she said. The antisemitism surge of the last two months has been particularly stressful for Jewish professionals because, in addition to helping others with mental health needs, security efforts and communal support, they also comprise the targeted community, Small explained.
She advised Jewish professionals to find someone with whom they feel comfortable to discuss their feelings honestly.

“When my therapists were feeling too much, they knew they could come to me, and they could say, ‘OK, we’re feeling too much. We need a break.’ And we work with them,” Small said.

She also suggests turning off the various forms of media as much as possible and recommends relying only on one or two trusted news sources.

Other recommendations for Jewish professionals: Pause social media for a day or two, and don’t take your phone to bed with you.

“I’m not going to tell anybody to delete Instagram,” Small said. “I’m not going to tell people to delete TikTok — they should probably, but it’s not the easiest thing to do. So, try to put a pause on it, mute it for a few days. Give yourself a break, and then go back to it.”

Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, said that Jewish professionals can learn some lessons from Oct 27, 2018.

She pointed to a survey published in 2020 by Rafael J. Engel, Daniel H. J. Lee and Daniel Rosen. One of the conclusions of the study, conducted about nine months after the synagogue shooting, was that Jewish professionals working with Jewish agencies at the time of the attack experienced vicarious trauma symptoms as first responders.

Vicarious stress or secondary traumatic stress are terms used to describe the effects therapists and other professionals experience working with traumatized people. And while first responders and mental health specialists anticipate working with traumatized people, Jewish professionals don’t necessarily have the same expectations.

Added to the stress, Feinstein said, are feelings of shame or guilt when experiencing this phenomenon.

“They think, ‘How dare I take up this emotional space? Other people are going through much harder things than I am,’” she said.

The best course of action for Jewish professionals, when they feel these types of emotions, Feinstein said, is to acknowledge that they’re real and that it isn’t shameful. It’s simply a byproduct of being an empathic human being.

Some of the symptoms of these feelings might include an inability to sleep or turn off the news, obsession with details, and increased levels of anger and hopelessness that persist, rather than come in waves.

“We want to acknowledge when they come and figure out what you can do to ground yourself in your own reality,” Feinstein said. “What can you do to control your own safety? And what can you do to show care and compassion for those who are experiencing pain and suffering?”

One of the challenges experienced since Oct. 7, Feinstein said, is working to not alienate those with different belief systems and to recognize that a diversity of opinions exist. It’s important, she noted, for therapists to be “agnostic” in their compassion.

In a community, she said, it’s essential for people to find a connection and not feel isolated or lonely.

Feelings of isolation, though, might be here for some time, Small acknowledged.

“Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle and we see where we stand with a lot of organizations, people and parts of the world, how do you put it back?” she asked. “You can’t. We have to learn to live with the knowledge we’ve gained and possibly adjust our worldviews. It’s not time to do it in the midst of a crisis. It’s a difficult thing to do. Once the crisis ends, we’ll have a chance to debrief and look at what we learned. That’s when we can adjust our long views.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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