Using our tradition and trauma response models to respond in ways that sustain hope and build confidence
by Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher LCSW
Many people, perhaps all people, are experiencing heightened anxiety, insecurity and doubt as troubling economic events are unfolding. Some of us have already been directly affected as we or a family member has lost a job, others fear they will be next, still more are concerned and confused about pensions, mortgages, investments and diminished resale values of homes. Within our tradition and in models of response to trauma there are particular responses that can help to sustain hope and rebuild confidence.
One source of hope and guidance for what is needed is provided by the sukkah. The sukkah is at once a place and a time in which we experience both our vulnerability and a clearer sense of what we actually really need to go on. We dwell for awhile in a fragile place, surrounded by friends and family and by the memory of guests no longer alive. We contemplate exactly where we place our faith and trust even when the world seems temporarily to have become something of a wilderness. Several years ago one family built a beautiful sukkah, set the table for the next nights dinner and hearing a forecast for rain, placed a plastic tarp over the sukkahs roof of branches thinking to prevent damage from the storm. That night the tarp filled with so much rainwater that the sukkah collapsed under the weight. Sometimes what we try to use to protect ourselves from what we fear brings more insecurity and pain upon us. This is a time when many will be frantically seeking desperate temporary solutions and may withdraw from the community seeking to protect themselves from feelings of shame or vulnerability. Yet this is also a time when we can help our congregants to depend upon what really matters, to remain hopeful and connected to one another, and to help one another so that all will be able to survive with dignity until more secure times come again.
As we seek to provide shelter and support faith we also can learn from work done with people who have experienced trauma. Whether the trauma was a terror attack, a serious illness, unemployment, divorce or a natural disaster there are common reactions and specific interventions that can help.
Common reactions may include reduced self-esteem, diminished or shaken sense of identity and belonging, shame, fear, insecurity, helplessness, guilt, loss of a sense of purpose and efficacy, feelings of rejection and failure, diminished trust in self, others and the world and weakened or even shattered sense of meaning and faith.
Responses that can help:
Providing reminders that the person matters as an individual, is cherished and needed: This can include such simple acts as telephoning and calling the person by name, encouraging others who care for the person to be available and to express their love. Mentioning economic realities from the bima, in newsletters and in classrooms can help people feel noticed and less alone. It is essential to convey that in the synagogue and at home, they are deeply cared for and needed.
Listening and uncritically validating the persons reaction: People need to discuss what happened to them, what they fear, how they have been affected. Validating is not agreeing or disagreeing but accepting how it seems to them. This may include acknowledging the person feels cheated, worthless or hopeless, or furious at family and even God. It is helpful to allow feelings and fears to be heard before reassurance and practical suggestions are offered, whether in school, sanctuary or study.
Reminding the person of how he or she has gotten through tough times in the past: Only after their despair and paralysis is acknowledged can we begin to ask questions that mobilize a persons past strengths and resources. This can mean asking if he had such a crisis before, what he or she thinks would help, reminding the individual of past times of success, of real skills and ways of coping that have worked and can be used now. Reminders of resources can include existing synagogue connections, friendship groups, family supports and even the presence of marketable skills.
Offering new ways of managing: It is essential to provide concrete help and new tools for managing stress. The congregation and caring committee can establish networks for helping members seeking employment, can make referrals for therapy where warranted, can offer professional help with budgeting and finance, can provide or refer to support groups, can offer ongoing availability of staff, host free exercise and meditation classes, offer free babysitting and low cost family activity programs.
Locating the experience in a context of meaning that enhances a sense of belonging, purpose and faith: Draw upon our tradition to find stories of strength and survival --look to Davids Psalms, Moses and Sarah to offer examples of hope after setback, losses and discouragement. Individuals are helped by being reminded that each of us is part of a people that has faced and overcome adversity by standing together. Most important are the constant messages that with hope and faith we can get through the wilderness to a better place and that how we see ourselves and treat one another along the way will make a great difference.
This is where the themes of Sukkot really help. In difficult times the congregation can become a giant sukkah. However frail and imperfect, it can be a shelter in which we remain open to Heaven, where we draw people close who offer us love and support in the present while we remember and sustain connection to those who have loved and inspired us in the past.