Last week, scientists at the University of South Florida’s Genomics program and the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research shared a study that documents how the DNA of women who were victimized during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was chemically modified. Specifically, the modified DNA was linked to genes associated with mental health disorders, PTSD and depression. According to the scientists involved in this study, the DNA modifications also affected and the children of these women, showing us that these chemical “epigenetic” modifications- epigenetics is the study of how behavior and environment can affect the way our genes work – impact future generations.
This is not new information. Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a neuroscientist at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, has studied the biological roots of PTSD in trauma victims, veterans and Holocaust survivors. Yehuda is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In 2016, she was part of a team that, for the first time, documented that epigenetic changes in humans that were the result of trauma can be passed on to children, even if these children were born after the trauma. Yehuda and her team’s research were specifically focused on Holocaust survivors and their children.
While none of us want to be victims, science documents that when hate and fear oppress us, it physically changes us and the generations yet to be. In turn, it affects our mental health and our outlook on the world. As a Jewish community, a community that, as we experienced so horrifically last Shabbat in Texas, continues to live with trauma, we need to be aware of the impact that this trauma has on our bodies and the bodies of our children and grandchildren. We need to recognize that the hate that many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents experienced is part of our DNA. And this DNA, well, it defines our kids who are still living with the hate, hate that is not as extreme as that experienced by family who lived through the Holocaust, but still hate that traumatizes and should not be minimalized. I want to add that for those of you who have adopted children, are adopted yourself and/or are a Jew-by-choice, clearly studies suggest that the impact of antisemitism today is affecting all of us who are connected to the Jewish community physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Given that we know that the hate is affecting us internally, it is imperative for our own well-being and the well-being of our families that we have safe places to gather, share our fears and, most importantly, celebrate who we are. Don’t forget, the perpetrators of antisemitism, racism and other hate directed at specific ethnic and racial groups want nothing more than the elimination of the groups they target. They don’t want us to have safe places. They want fear to govern our lives and keep us from our places of gathering. The events at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville have the power to keep some of us from returning to Ramat Shalom and other Jewish communal spaces. This fear is understandable, but it is not healthy. It creates dangerous disconnect between us and our community – the people and places that can provide healing from the trauma.
I am beyond grateful for Chief Harrison, Plantation’s Chief of Police, his officers, other local and national law enforcement agencies, our own private security company, Ramat Shalom’s security committee and board of directors, our staff, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation. They have, as a top priority, the safety and security of Ramat Shalom and every other Jewish institution out there. As a synagogue, we have invested and continue to invest in state-of-the-art security technology and, as a staff, will continue to be trained by law enforcement. Yes, it is sad we need to do all of this, but we do it to make sure that Ramat Shalom is the safe haven we all need – that our children and grandchildren deserve.
If you are feeling unsettled right now, I get it! Realize that this unsettled feeling has deep roots that are part of your DNA. Also realize you do not have to feel what you are feeling by yourself. We are all going through this together. Tonight, during our online service, we will create some space for folks to share their thoughts. Feel free to join us tonight on Zoom or on our Facebook page. Share if you choose, or just listen and realize, you are not alone. Together, we are strong and we will continue to thrive.