Friday, July 25, 2014

Putting Strategies to Work

Another week in Jerusalem...and what a week it has been!  Unless you've been actively avoiding the news, you're probably at least somewhat aware of what people in Israel call, "the Situation."  Communities in southern Israel continue to be under rocket fire from Hamas; Palestinian civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire (after basically being put there by their own leadership), and Israeli combat soldiers continue to carry out their ground operation in Gaza, which, tragically, has cost many of them their lives.  In a country where everybody knows somebody who is fighting in Gaza, the mood here is tense and anxious as people keep tabs on the news, hoping there will be no more fatalities but knowing that, most likely, there will be.

Personally, I do not have any relatives in the Israeli army, but I do have several good friends whose husbands, brothers, and sons are currently in combat units in Gaza.  I cannot even imagine the emotional roller coasters that these friends of mine are on; I don't know how they can successfully focus on activities of daily living while worrying about the safety of their loved ones.  But, they do, and for that they have my total admiration.  I don't know how I would handle being in their shoes.  The truth is, being a watcher has been stressful and painful enough.

Fortunately, after many years of therapy I have learned quite a few "distress tolerance" skills, and during the past couple of weeks I have had many occasions to use them.  I'll be honest and admit that, often, the path of least resistance seems to be just immersing myself in the anxiety and sadness, watching the news unfold and worrying about the people I know who are in harm's way...but if I did that, I would be miserable all the time.  So, I've turned to my arsenal of distress tolerance strategies, out of which have emerged three favorites:

1)  Distraction.  For this, I have two main sources to thank:  My ulpan program at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem, and the summer learning program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.  Between these two programs, I have spent seven hours a day, five days a week, actively engaged in learning both conversational Hebrew and traditional Jewish texts.  And, even when I felt like I could not possibly focus on anything other than the Situation, inevitably I would get wrapped up in my studies and would be able to shelve my anxiety, at least temporarily.  It helped immensely to know that all of my classmates were experiencing feelings similar to mine.  During our breaks or over lunch, we would often talk about our worries and reactions to the news.  But, we also talked about other things, giving ourselves the time and space to think about life outside the current war.  In times of stress, there really is nothing quite like being connected to people who "get it."

2) Prayer.  I'll be totally up front and say that before this summer, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I'd said tehillim.  I didn't really understand how that whole routine worked, and it was just Not My Thing.  But, at my therapist's suggestion, I talked to a wonderful teacher of mine about how to use prayer as a way to calm my mind when anxious, obsessive thoughts start to take over.  My teacher suggested choosing a favorite passuk or piece of tehillim and repeating it to myself slowly when I started to feel my mind careen out of control.  I happened to know exactly one chapter of tehillim (luckily it's a great one!), and over the past week I've tried to recite it both during formal davening and at any time when I start to feel particularly worried about what's going on in Israel and the safety of my friends.  It has been especially helpful to think of the names of the soldiers for whose safety I'm praying, and to recite tehillim with them in mind.  While I have no conclusive answer as to whether or not this practice works cosmically, I will say that it has helped me a lot in the moment, which is good enough for me!

3) Getting Involved.  What I hear Israelis saying over and over (and what I'm also saying) is, "I wish I could do something to help."  Thinking positive thoughts is great, but sometimes you just want to roll up your sleeves and physically do something productive to make a tough situation a little bit better.  Israelis, I have found, are experts at this.  Kids in youth groups are out on the street, getting strangers to donate money and supplies to the soldiers; civilians are collecting food and personally driving it down to the soldiers in Gaza; thousands of people are turning out at the funerals and shivas of soldiers they didn't even know, just so the families feel the love of the entire Jewish community.  This morning, I went with a few of my friends to an event at a private home in Jerusalem, where dozens of people had come together to assemble care packages for soldiers in units that have suffered casualties.  As we all worked together to pack up army-issue socks and underwear, granola bars, books of tehillim, and t-shirts, people kept commenting on how good it felt to finally be doing something to help.  Taking action, it seems, is a remarkably effective way to combat feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

There have been many times over the past few weeks when I've felt almost overcome with sadness, or fear, or worry.  But now, as I reflect on the skills I've used, the connections I've made, and the courage I've witnessed, what I feel most of all is love.  The news is still heartbreaking, and loved ones are still in danger.  But being part of a larger community that works to support each other has made the tough moments easier to bear, and has replaced a lot of the anxiety with feelings of warmth and connection.  My heart is full of gratitude to Am Yisrael, and I wish us all a truly peaceful, quiet, Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 18, 2014

For the Watchers

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!

It has been a beautiful week in many ways.  I've continued exploring and debating texts in my classes at the Pardes Institute, and I also began an ulpan program that has empowered me to feel ever so slightly more proficient in Hebrew.  I spent some quality time with some special teachers of mine, got to snuggle a baby, and had a glorious reunion with two friends I hadn't seen in a year or more.  Also, the weather has been close to perfect.  So, that's all wonderful.

And yet.

As I write this, Israeli troops are waging a ground operation in Gaza; one IDF soldier has already been killed and several more have been injured.  Nearly every time I've checked my phone in the past week and a half, I have seen a notification that another rocket was launched from Gaza into Israel.  I've seen and read reports of the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza who are trapped, largely by their own leadership, in what seems to be a hopeless situation.  And, I've watched as a ceasefire agreement failed and took with it the possibility of peace and quiet for civilians on both sides of the conflict.  Added to all of this has been the seemingly endless stream of status updates on Facebook and other media posted by people who, most of the time, have very strong opinions despite not having many facts.  Although my life has gone on relatively uninterrupted in Jerusalem (thank G-d!), there is a part of my brain that is always occupied with the larger struggle in which Israel is enveloped.

It is painful to watch, all the more so because I know there isn't really anything I can do to help as an American citizen who is only here for five weeks.  I'm not in the army, nor do I have any other skills which would potentially be useful in this conflict.  I can't bring aid to soldiers, nor can I offer shelter to families who are under near constant fire in southern Israel.  My contributions have basically been limited to donating food to the Pina Chama, a soldiers' rest stop in the West Bank, and trying to daven with a little more kavannah aimed at the current situation.  While I know that "every little bit helps," it still feels like a small drop in a very large bucket.  I have realized, over the past two weeks, how emotionally challenging it is to be relegated to the role of a bystander while people (and a place) you love are suffering.

As I've struggled with the task of watching a problem unfold in front of me without being able to do anything to "fix it," I've thought over and over again about the parallels between that situation and that of parents who are watching their child struggle with an eating disorder.  In the work that I do as a co-facilitator of a support group for parents and loved ones of individuals with eating disorders, I hear on a weekly basis about the sense of powerlessness, fear, anger, and anxiety that these parents feel.  How excruciating it must be to watch the suffering of your child, the person whom you love most in this world!  Parents, despite their purest positive intentions, cannot fix eating disorders.  They can't eat for their children, provide "quick fix" therapy, or relieve the problem with any manner of rational discourse.  All they can really do is love their children, provide support whenever possible...and watch, as their children do battle on the front lines.  As I reflect on the many years in which my parents were stuck being witnesses to my struggle against anorexia, I can honestly say that although my work was grueling, painful, and exhausting, I think their role was just as agonizing.  Although bystanders are held back from the actual combat, they are forced to watch the suffering of those they love...and being a watcher comes with a pain all its own.

Going into this Shabbat, I am going to continue to try my best to support this country I love from the sidelines.  I will pray for the safety and security of the Israeli soldiers, as well as for the protection of civilians, Israeli and Palestinian alike.  I will also take this opportunity to publicly thank my parents for enduring the challenge of watching for so many years, and for never once wavering in their support.  And, for all the parents out there who wish they could do more to move their children along toward recovery...sometimes, the best you can do is let your children know you are in it with them for the long haul, that you love them and won't give up on them, and that you stand ready to do whatever you can to support them.  I wish that you and your children find some peace in the process of recovery and that you can resume your full lives with energy and joy.

May this be a peaceful and quiet Shabbat for all.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Holding

Shalom from...Jerusalem!  Thank G-d, once again I have been fortunate to come to Israel during my summer break from teaching.  The past two weeks have been full of packing, worrying, flying, overcoming jet-lag, and gleefully running into the arms of friends and teachers I hadn't seen in months, or, in many cases, a full year.  (For those of you whom I haven't yet seen...fear not, I'm coming for you!)

If you've been following the news, you know that this is not an easy time for Israel.  As always, the issues are complex and trying to untangle them is a little like peeling an onion--as soon as you get through one layer, there's another one right underneath.  But here's a very brief synopsis of one heartbreaking layer of that onion:  On June 12, three Jewish Israeli teenage boys--Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad, were kidnapped while attempting to go home to their respective families for Shabbat.  The boys were hitchhiking from a well-known hitchhiking stop in Gush Etzion (a common means of traveling in Israel), when they were picked up by men who turned out to be Palestinian terrorists.  For the next eighteen days, the boys' families and friends waited anxiously for news while the Israeli military worked round the clock to locate the missing children.  During this time, the entire Jewish community--not just in Gush Etzion, not just in Israel, but in the entire world--mobilized to support the boys and their families through whatever means possible, most often prayer or other acts of dedicated religious practice.  Ultimately, though, the boys were found dead; apparently they were murdered by their kidnappers not long after they were abducted.

I arrived in Israel the morning of the funerals.  Needless to say, since then, it has been hard for a day to go by without hearing someone mention the heartrending loss of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad.  It has also been a little bit disconcerting to walk into a country steeped in mourning and grappling with the aftermath of tragedy.  But what has stood out to me most dramatically is the way the community has truly come together to hold and support one another through their individual and collective grief.  Israelis of all stripes have closed ranks around the boys' families, reaching out with prayers and letters of support, knowing that they can do nothing to lessen the families' grief but being compelled to share in it, nonetheless.  The families, in turn, have opened their arms back out to the community by being willing to receive all the energy and love coming at them.  The result is a beautiful, collective holding.

Being held.  How much more elemental does it get, really?  We all need to know that we have people in our lives who will help us bear our emotions, who will get down in the trenches with us and help us weather the storm.  No matter how introverted or independent we believe we are, we still have a basic, profound need to be held--and, I would venture, to be held by people beyond our immediate family members.  We need friends, we need a network--no matter how small--that we can count on to catch us when we begin to crumble to the ground.  When that need goes unacknowledged or unsatisfied, the results can be devastating:  depression, isolation, self-injury, addiction, shame...the list goes on.  Personally, the way I dealt with feeling unheld was by using food rituals and exercise to "hold myself."  When there was no one in my daily life I could go to, I went to the gym instead.  When I had no friends to chase away the loneliness, I filled the void with intricate and much-anticipated eating routines.  It was a valiant effort, but it didn't work.  It turns out, there is no substitute for being held.

A central part of my recovery has been seeking out relationships with people who will hold me, and whom I can hold.  There is nothing more comforting than feeling the warmth of someone's support when I am in a time of need.  As I've watched the people of Israel hold each other the past few weeks, I've become acutely aware of the ways in which this land, and the people in it, hold me, as well.  The sheer natural beauty of this place cradles me when I need an escape from heavy thoughts.  My teachers nurture my spiritual growth; they receive my questions openly and offer guidance and love as I make my way through this world.  And my friends prove to me, over and over again, that I am as important to them as they are to me; that we are here for each other, no matter the distance between us.  Food and exercise can never, ever compete with that.  Being held is the best.

And so, during my time in Israel, I am going to enjoy the experience of being held by this unique and wondrous land I call my second home, and by the radiant, passionate people I call my chosen family. I wish that ALL of us allow ourselves access to the warmth and security of being held.  There truly is nothing better.