How to help your Jewish friends and colleagues now

How to help your Jewish friends and colleagues now

My personal American Jewish experience of the Hamas/Israel war

Rachel Bernstein
Rachel Bernstein

The war broke out a week ago. All week long, my phone buzzed with texts and WhatsApp messages from non-Jewish friends and colleagues. I could tell that many of them felt awkward or didn’t know what to say. Thank you for pushing past that discomfort and reaching out anyway.

My childhood friend sent a lovely message that she’s thinking of me and is sad to hear the news from Israel. We only talk about once a year, if that. We exchanged some words and photos about our old soccer days. The CEO of the $5B company I work for sent a heartening message. He very rarely comments on world news. A former colleague sent a note that she’s praying for my family and community. These notes filled my heart, especially in a week when I cried multiple times a day.

In turn, I’m taking the love they sent me and sharing with my community and family who are struggling. One dear friend is reeling as her son is on the front line. She hasn’t heard from him in a day. Thank you for your service; I checked in with her.

A terrified friend knocked on my door Friday night. She was white as paper and shaking because a stranger in a passing car screamed at her. It was dark. She was walking to synagogue with her 9-year-old daughter. We live in a quiet suburb. I held her. I distracted her daughter for a few minutes so she could compose herself. She braved on to synagogue a few minutes later. Thank you for letting me feel like I’m helping in this overpowering situation.

I’d like to share my personal experience in taking in love and passing it along.

I’ll only represent myself as an American Jew. Israelis’ experience is much closer than mine. They hopped on dozen-hour flights back home to rejoin their units. Some weren’t even called up yet. Others are housing relatives who were displaced. Others hugged their sons and spouses before driving to their bases. It could be the last time. Another responded to a friend saying the Jewish prayer for her dead brother. Israelis have a stiff upper lip.

Israel is a small country, and there aren’t that many Jews in the world. Everyone is one or two degrees away from a tragedy and fear this time. I have mine. My thoughtful, fantasy-loving cousin, (a husband and father of three) was called up to the reserves. A relative was taken captive violently from her kibbutz safe room. We have no news yet. A friend’s cousin was murdered at the music festival. My son’s teacher raced back to join his IDF unit. He couldn’t say goodbye.

This situation is calling up intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust and pogroms. Of course, this is different. However, the lived feelings and experiences Jews across the world are living through are raw and real.

Everyone has their own set of feelings and views, which naturally shift and evolve. I’ve ugly sobbed and mourned. Sirens scare me now. The constant worry & uncertainty is draining and leaving me distracted. I’m emotionally depleted. I walk into the living room and forgot what I was looking for.

Last night, my son was at a playdate-turned-sleepover at a close friend’s house. I packed him a backpack with a toothbrush. When I called out to my husband to drive it over, I was paralyzed with intense fear when he didn’t answer. I looked all over the house. Minutes went by. Where was he? I looked everywhere: attic, basement, kitchen; I called for him outside. The kids were playing magna tiles & cars and wanted to show me the color-organized pyramid they constructed. I panicked. I put the baby to bed thinking that if there’s an emergency, I can know she’s safe in her crib. At least until morning. I don’t remember diapering and putting her to bed. I thought about what I’d do having to raise the kids without my husband. He wouldn’t get to see the little ones learn to ride a bike. Was he hit by a car? Attacked on the street? How did I not hear anything? It’s so dark out. Sprinkling rain. My heart raced. I wondered how I’d talk the kids. Wait until morning? Josh walked in saying he went to go pick up our son. Oops, thought he told me. I’m not normally like this. The intensity is wearing me down. I’m struggling even to read books. I just can’t focus.

This is my personal experience over the last few days. My intention is to build empathy and provide inspiration on why it’s so important to reach out to your Jewish and Israeli friends and colleagues. Be genuine. You don’t have to address anything political if you don’t want to. Focus on making a human connection. You don’t need to prove your level of knowledge about the current situation or Jewish history.

For Jews and others, here’s my advice on how to receive these messages: say thank you. Accept the connection offering.

Read an extra book to your kids. Let the other car go first. Wait to respond when you’re angry. Expend energy on the relationships in your real life, especially those one or two circles removed from your usual connections. Consider following the news cycle & social media less.

Rachel Bernstein is a senior product director for Gartner. She lives in Teaneck with her supportive husband and four delightful children.

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