Two Jews (one of them, me, Israeli), a Black pastor, and the rest of a multi-ethnic, Boston city trauma response team, walk into a…Chabad school. Not a bar, but it still sounds like the opening line of an ethnic joke. In my line of work, you gotta laugh now and then or you’ll go nuts: I’m a trauma therapist and unfortunately business is booming.
On July 1st, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was assaulted in front of Chabad’s Shaloh house in Brighton, Massachusetts.
“As Jews, incidents like these trigger our ethnic memory,” I say on a Zoom call with The Boston Trauma Response Team (BTR) as we prepare to deploy in support of the Shaloh House community impacted by the attack on the rabbi.
“For us, it’s a short distance between a rabbi getting stabbed and the rest of us being loaded onto a train to Auschwitz…” It’s not unusual for me to be joining an incident response team, this time, however, I’m being called as the bearer of “cultural competence.”
“…like when I was shopping for an apartment, the first thing I looked for was a secret annex where I could hide from the Nazis.”
Culturally competent mental health providers speak the same language, come from similar backgrounds, and look like the people they are serving. Otherwise, mental health professionals risk being a bunch of white people butting into the lives of people of color, telling them what to do and how to be when we haven’t a clue about their lives.
With this in mind, Boston’s Trauma Response Team is staffed by responders of color, one small step against systemic inequality but a giant step for “the most racist city I’ve ever been to.”
“Jews aren’t just one thing,” I said. “In Israel, there’s a divide between the ultra-Orthodox not only with secular society but with communities that are otherwise observant. So, I’ve got some of my own ‘othering’ to deal with going into this.”
I also offered that despite stereotypes, the Jewish community holds a broad spectrum of opinions about the Israeli government’s policies and treatment of Palestinians. While it may seem odd to bring up the touchpoints fraying the once robust Black-Jewish alliance (see here, for example), cultural competence recognizes that both trauma recovery and trauma treatment happen within a historical context.
‘I want to try your hat’
Any anxiety I had walking into Shaloh house with the BTR team that hot afternoon was squelched when we were greeted by Dovik (pseudonyms for confidentiality), a short but authoritative 10-year-old, pointing to himself and his two young friends and saying: “We are not the ones you need to talk to.” Pointing to a taller boy, he continued, “We’re not traumatized. But he saw what happened. So, you’ll need to talk to him.”
“Thank goodness someone’s in charge around here!” The team and I laughed, and the boys led me and my friend Donald Osgood up a stairwell, scurrying back down and up to ensure we weren’t far behind. The rest of the team followed the school counselor into an office where they would be meeting with a group of parents.
Donald, otherwise known as the Pastor of the Inner-City, sat at the head of the table. He had worn a Panama hat against the day’s scorching heat. Zvika, the smallest boy, ventured, “I want to try your hat, give me your hat.” Donald smiled and offered, “I’ll trade mine for yours.”
Zvika, now uncomfortable, rubbed his kippah, considering the predicament: “I can’t,” he said. I explained that Zvika had to keep his head covered for religious reasons, then Zvika rebounded with: “I bet you have a lot of hats.”
So, we talked about how we all wear different hats and what the color of a hat might mean in certain neighborhoods until Dovik butt in demanding, “Come on! Ask your questions already.”
“Oh, is that what we’re supposed to do?” Donald and I looked at each other, shrugging.
“Well, that’s what you’re here for isn’t it? To talk about trauma.”
“What is trauma?” I asked. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
The boys, who were 9 and 10 years old, answered in unison: The Holocaust.
Then each one took a turn talking about great grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles who fought, survived, died on trains, in concentration camps, escaped through tunnels. Considering their age, there were some generational inaccuracies in their stories. But that wasn’t the point.
The room was suddenly quiet as they watched Donald absorb their stories.
I offered, “the Holocaust was our people’s biggest trauma, but something can be traumatic without having to be a Holocaust.”
“Yeah, like when the rabbi was stabbed,” Zvika said.
“But he recovered,” said Dovik, “so it’s not a trauma.”
Donald started, “Well,” and the boys came to attention in their seats, “I’ve seen people get stabbed. It’s something so personal, so close. Even if you recover from it, that violation…it can be traumatic.”
“Yeah,” Dovik said, “but the rabbi knows karate (actually he’s a Judo black belt) and fought him off. I’m jealous. I know karate. I wish I was the one to fight the bad guy!”
Donald asked the boys the purpose of martial arts, and I asked what escalates and de-escalates a situation until Dovik insisted: “When a therapist asks a question, it shouldn’t be directly. That can make someone nervous.” I asked Dovik to show me what he meant. Dovik turned toward Avrum, the taller boy who witnessed the attack, asking what’s your name, how did you get your name, do you like your name…
Avrum joked that his name was Juan Carlos and the boys giggled because they knew it was because they’d teased him about having darker skin. That’s when I asked, so what did you see? and Avrum told the story of seeing the rabbi on the steps in front of the school talking on his cellphone when a man with a gun came up to him, and the rabbi fought him off, all the time luring his assailant into the middle of the street. “Yeah,” Zvika chimed in, “to get the bad guy away from the school. He was protecting us.”
‘I’m a hero. I like that.’
Then Avrum said he wasn’t sure what happened next because he looked away. “There was so much blood.” He described how he ran back to the playground to warn everyone but the kids didn’t believe him.
“The counselors did,” said Dovik, “but then they played loud music and put mattresses over the windows so we couldn’t see what was going on. They tried to trick us…”
“Actually,” Donald said softly, so they had to lean in to hear what he was saying, “every school goes through drills to prepare for situations like this. It’s what they do to keep everyone safe.”
While Dovik considered Donald’s version, I said to Avrum: “So you warned everybody about what was going on outside. That’s why your counselors knew to get you all to safety. That makes you a hero, Avrum. Don’t you think?”
“I’m a hero,” Avrum hesitated, then confidently, “I’m a hero. I like that.”
Then off they ran to catch their rides home.
As Donald and I made our way back down the stairs we could hear the buzz of parents showering the rest of the team with questions.
When BTR regrouped in the front hall of Shaloh house I heard someone say, “They really wanted to talk.”
The school counselor (in a knee-length jean skirt) thanked us, offering pink slushies from a machine hidden in a back room. Passing the cold cups around, I pictured the Anti-Defamation League’s HEAT Map showing that in 2020 and the first half of 2021 there were 8,004 reported incidents of extremism or antisemitism across the United States.
Here we were one small pinprick on that map, in a small moment of relief, not only from the scorching temperatures, but from the searing helplessness, hopelessness, the conundrum of frayed alliances, the threats, and the discord rounding the bend.
Nevertheless, that’s the key to my own resilience as a trauma therapist: fathoming the cooling effect of our work, like the melting pink ice in our hands; celebrating the moments that are transcendent in more ways than I could ever have imagined.