Generational Trauma: This is Not a Drill

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’

How many of us grew up with that quote being drilled into our heads, the Shoah a marker in the past for our parents’ generation and still an actual memory for our grandparents? I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that for us – those of us currently in our 30s and 40s – we grew up certain that the atrocities of the Holocaust (and even the steps leading up to it: extreme nationalism, ‘othering’ and vilifying those different from oneself, strict immigration policies, etc.) could never again rear its ugly head. That was an incredibly dark time in human history and I knew we’d remember it and teach it to our own children in order to be sure that such an atrocity would never have the chance to surface ever again.

And yet. Here we are. Hineinu.

In the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by the research that has been done on generational trauma. It’s the idea that trauma is actually passed on, not only via behavioral disorders, particular neuroses, or psychological damage induced by trauma but also through actual changes in DNA across multiple generations, the youngest of which were not even alive at the time of the trauma. (There is definitely controversy around whether or not the original study was scientifically sound; the point is that whether psychologically or genetically, trauma is certainly shared with subsequent generations.) I started reading about this phenomenon several years ago but it really came to life for me in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Beginning in November that year and continuing on for several months after that, I experienced several vivid dreams (nightmares?) wherein I was living as a Jewish person in 1930s Eastern Europe, rounded up in the ghetto and eventually put on a train car. Though I am not descended directly from Shoah survivors, I (like most Jews alive today), had some relatives who were killed in the camps and I have been surrounded by stories from that time all my life.

I should note; these weren’t only bedtime nightmares. I started to feel that I had actually been there. And these were not my first experiences with feeling like I had lived in a previous era. I have also had several occasions where I (feel like I) am standing at Mt. Sinai or I’m in the tent sharing a meal with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, or midwifing a baby in Jerusalem. I realize this may sound insane but it’s been my lived experience. Others have told me they have had similar experiences, real physical sensations, like feeling their ancestors’ blood in their veins when touching the Kotel. I don’t think this is coincidental. I think we are fundamentally, energetically connected to those who came before us, across time and place.

So perhaps it’s because of these experiences that I am struggling so much to process the news out of our southern border, where parents are being separated from their children, where there are reports of children being held behind fencing, and where we were initially outraged at the loss of almost 1,500 children. As a mother, it is unfathomable that a government – let alone MY government – could literally rip a child from his mother’s arms. And to those who insist that this is a proper response to individuals attempting to enter our country illegally, I don’t think there is anything I can say to change your minds. But we know from the reporting on the ground that many of those experiencing this trauma are those seeking asylum from a dangerous part of the world; forcibly tearing their children out of their arms – from their breast! – is an unthinkable further trauma. You can hear the trauma in the children’s cries. I shudder to think what the effects will be for generations of these families to come.

Jewfolk, along with many of our local Jewish organizations, are proud to sign onto a letter (original draft of the letter can be read here though a newer version will likely be released with many more signatories) co-signed by many of the leading American Jewish organizations, condemning the “zero tolerance” family separation policy. “The Administration is separating children from their migrant parents at the border, even when they present legally themselves at official ports of entry to request asylum, which goes against Jewish and American values.”

Local Jewish families are getting organized too. Local mothers, Andrea Potashnick and Michelle Shainess, are initiating a project for kids helping kids. This Sunday, June 24th marks the kickoff of #KidsTakeAStand lemonade stands to raise donations to help immigrant kids separated from their families at the border. This is a great way for families to work together to create positive change for kids in need at the US border. Wherever you are, you can start a lemonade stand to help. All donations earned through these lemonade stands can go directly to help the children and families in need who are being separated at the border.

Here’s how it works:

Plan a lemonade stand for Sunday, June 24 or any day in the next two weeks. Tie in with existing community events, high traffic areas, and any matching sponsors who might be able to help make your stand a great one.
  1. Register your lemonade stand here. (RSVP to the Facebook event to share with your friends.)
  2. Have your kids make signs for your stand and promote it on social media using #KidsTakeAStand
  3. After your event, send your donations directly to either of the two suggested organizations using the links below. These groups are on the ground providing direct help for these kids and families.
  4. Email us with the donation amount your stand earned and the organization you selected – and a photo if the public cannot see your social media and photos.
Suggested Donations to:
  • Migrant Center for Human Rights: They provide free and low-cost legal services to detained, low-income immigrants facing removal from the US. They work in facilities outside San Antonio, Texas: the South Texas Detention Complex and the Karnes County Correctional Center. They support all immigrants regardless of nationality, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
    Donate here.

Look for #KidsTakeAStand and if you see a lemonade stand in your neighborhood in the coming week, come thirsty and drink up!

Some of our local Jewish organizations are responding to this as well but also are mindful of the long-term goals. Beth Gendler, Executive Director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota told me, “As far as what we are doing locally, it’s supporting and showing up alongside organizations like MIRAC. Our bodies and voices are important. Most important is our voter engagement work. Getting people to the polls in November is the best thing we can do to ensure that the people who represent us reflect our values.” Here’s the national NCJW statement if you’d like to read it.

And Carin Mrotz, Executive Director of Jewish Community Action, let us know that “JCA is plugged into some national and local actions that are being planned; there is a big national one on June 30th which is Shabbat so we are not sponsoring that but will still have all the information. However, other things are not at a point where we have dates and times. Folks can contact Lauren for further information.

“The other way people can get involved in a longer-term ongoing way – because to be real, these tent cities are big news right now but the Hennepin County sheriff’s office has a history of facilitating deportations and we don’t believe local law enforcement should be responsible for enforcing federal immigration policy. The campaign is focused on the intersection of the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. We will have info sessions in July. Contact Rachel for more details.”

A friend of mine and fellow Jewish professional, Alisha Pedowitz, summed it up well:

Let this sink in. We, the United States, in the name of “law,” are pulling screaming children out of the arms of their parents, by the thousands, and placing them into mass detention centers, with neither parent nor child knowing where the other is or if they will ever be reunited. Our justification? They are trying to cross our borders. They don’t belong here. We must deter them.

This feels all too familiar. Have we learned nothing?

Anyone who can rip a nursing baby from his mother’s arms, ignore the screams of both parent and child, crying from the deepest and most basic need and bond of humanity, send them each knowingly to a fate of being lost to one another, mothers left to wonder about the fate of their children, children left motherless and detained in the equivalent of jails—anyone who can do that has separated themselves from their own humanity and basic human instincts.

We are them.

Indeed, we are them. Our time to Never Again has arrived. The present children behind chain link fences are the top priority, no doubt. Let us work together – Hineinu (here we are) – to perpetuate less trauma in future generations.