By Stephanie Levin
A few weeks ago there was a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, the city I grew up in. Last month, close to 300 people were killed in Sri Lanka on Easter. Two months ago, two Parkland teens and the father of a Sandy Hook student took their own lives by suicide. Each day, the number of national and international tragedies and crises grow. School shootings. Raging wildfires. Hurricanes. Faith-based massacres. Cyclones. And, each day, our personal tragedies and challenges grow too – as our families and friends navigate cancer diagnoses, the death of parent, divorce, domestic abuse.
In the initial hours, days and weeks following a crisis – national or personal – we see tremendous support pouring in. We collect gift cards for wildfire victims, drop off food after a diagnosis, sign online petitions and show up with brownies after a death. In these initial moments we rally together and focus our energy on trying to show up and help. And then, after a few days, weeks or months, we go back to our normal lives while those in need stumble through trying to find their new normal. In response to the recent suicides of two Parkland teens, Yale psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Stubb writes, “As people move on with their lives after that initial outpouring, we can’t overestimate how traumatic that is for survivors and families – the scars are lasting and small reminders can bring it all back on.”
On July 31, 2002, a terrorist placed a bomb at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nine people were killed, including one of my best friends, Marla Ann Bennett. Almost 17 years later, I remember every detail of that day, and the days that followed. I also remember what my rabbi said to me in those early days of my intense grief. “Your feelings can either push you down into grief, isolation and darkness, or they can be a source of power and a catalyst for you to bring more light into the world. You get to choose how you use your energy and how you show up in the world.”
I think about this every time I encounter pain – personal or communal. Marla’s death changed me and I have learned to lean into that pain, to show up and stay present, to try to bring light into dark times. It is difficult to navigate and comprehend a world filled with so much pain, violence, and destruction. It is much easier to put on blinders, to look past the horror, to focus on getting through the work day and folding the laundry, to stay contained in the bubble of your own life. It seems impossible to take in, let alone respond to, the daily – almost hourly – onslaught of pain and suffering happening in the world, in our cities, our neighborhoods, our houses of worship, our schools, our homes. It is easier to look away, it’s easier to offer thoughts and prayers, but what is really needed is to maintain our gaze, to show up and keep showing up over and over again.
According to the American Cancer Society, “Although survivors can lead long, healthy lives after cancer, they often have physical, emotional, or even financial needs that may continue for many years after being diagnosed.” All survivors – of disease, of abuse, of natural disasters, of loss – they all have these needs for the rest of their lives.
It’s true that it is impossible for any one person to continue to show up and support every person or community that is suffering, no one can be there for everyone. Yet if we each do our part, if we each use whatever we feel – our anger, our grief, our fear – for good, there will be more than enough light and love to go around. We must each find ways to stay the course with the people closest to us and the causes we are most deeply connected to. We must each keep calling to check in, bringing food and making space for grief, for sadness and for difficult conversations. We must each keep raising both money and awareness for those who are suffering. We must each keep showing up, sending cards on anniversaries, dropping off a meal, and not just asking how people are doing but sticking around to really hear the answer, even and especially when it’s hard.
When tragedy strikes close to home or halfway around the world – we each get to choose what we do with our energy. We each get to decide if our feelings will spur us to action or cause us to despair. I am committed to showing up and staying present for the long haul – personally and also communally as a Jewish professional. What act – big or small – can you take today to show up for the people in your life and your community? was the last time you donated to your favorite nonprofit, sent a note to someone who recently lost a parent, or showed up with soup for a friend with a chronic illness? How will you show up for the people of Pittsburgh and Poway in six months and in six years? How will you use your energy to show up and keep showing up in the world?
Stephanie Levin is the Chief Engagement & Innovation Officer at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, CA. She is deeply committed to leveraging the power of meaningful human connections to create peace and justice in the world.
This piece is part of a series from members of Voices for Good, a Bay Area fellowship, sponsored by Jewish LearningWorks, that amplifies the voices of women working in Jewish professional life.