January 1, 2021

Returning Home: Jewish Trauma & Psychedelic Healing

By Madison Margolin

“Am I gonna be okay? Am I gonna be okay?” Over and over I repeated the question. I can’t recall how many times I said it—because at a certain point, I wasn’t really there anymore. The “I” in question was somewhere else. Or maybe “I” had simply dissolved, leaving my body, my nervous system to its own devices.

There are a couple branches of the autonomic nervous system, including the parasympathetic—which activates in a state of rest, repair, and relaxation—and the sympathetic—which activates in a state of fight-or-flight. I spend more time in the sympathetic mode than I’d like. My inner wheels are often churning, always on alert. In my efforts to set myself straight, I discovered 5-MeO-DMT, a.k.a. “the God molecule,” a dissociative psychedelic found in the secretion of the Sonoran Desert toad (or synthesized in a lab). Researchers have explored this compound’s potential to treat a variety of ailments, from anxiety and depression to addiction and trauma. It’s even been shown to increase feelings of mindfulness in a single dose. 

After a sizable hit from a vaporizer containing the toad venom, my “trip sitters” held me, “held space” for me, as they say in today’s psychedelic lingo. My brown curls sprawling across a pillow, my pale open palms by the sides of my stomach, rising and falling with speed: I was nervous, going into what was all of a 25-minute out-of-body trip. Would I be okay after all this was said and done? Would I be okay in the grand scheme of life? At some point, one of the sitters had taken my hand, reassuring me that yes, everything would be okay, that it already was okay, that whatever my body was scared of didn’t actually exist in the present, wasn’t part of the here and now. My guides told me to breathe. Simple exhales and inhales, long and deep. It’s easy to forget, ya know? My body is better at anxiety than it is at relaxation—but my soul knows better. 

*

I never felt so innately Jewish as when I did 5-MeO-DMT. It was validating: I’m afraid of a threat, even when it isn’t there. My body is often ready for the moment when the answer to that aching question is, “No, it won’t be okay”; thus, the sympathetic nervous system is active. Is this an expression of what’s considered “Jewish trauma”? It’s certainly a type of anxiety that lives inside me, within a Jewish body.

Can I speak to the experiences of my ancestors? Perhaps. In the early 20th century, they fled the region surrounding Russia and what was once Galitzia for America; in the 15th century, they fled Spain for Eastern Europe. I obsessively read Holocaust literature as a kid. Anne Frank was my idol. I impersonated her for a “living biography” book report in fourth grade. These things stick with us, often in ways we’re unaware of. 

I never felt so innately Jewish as when I did 5-MeO-DMT.

“Am I gonna be okay?” In other words, am I safe? It’s a question not unrelated to my Jewishness.  And it was through my experience with psychedelics that these two things—my own experienced and ancestral trauma vis-à-vis my Jewish identity—revealed themselves as intertwined, like snakes spiraling around a staff of healing. This moment of self-revelation in the context of my familial lineage led me to look more deeply into the triangulation between trauma, Jewishness, and psychedelics. And at the core of it all, beneath my shpilkes, beyond my shadows, I began to uncover and reclaim myself, anew. 

*

As Natalie Ginsberg—director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)—once explained to me, “trauma is the feeling of being profoundly unsafe.” It answers “No” to the question, “Am I going to be okay?” 

As today’s discourse often has it, “trauma lives in the body.” In other words, trauma manifests not only in our thoughts, dreams, memories, and feelings, but also in the health of our physical being—in our backaches, our ulcers, our sleeping and eating habits, our brains’ anxiety disorders. That means that we are not always consciously aware of the traumas that we might be holding on to and carrying around with us. Such injury, when not processed and integrated, will continue to express itself through the language of our bodies, rather than in clearly articulated thoughts or words. It is therefore in the body where we must often encounter and embrace our deepest brokenness or wounding. 

Also common in the discourse is the idea that trauma can be inherited—that is, there’s the trauma we experience in our own lives, and the trauma our ancestors suffered through that still may live on in our physical bodies and spiritual DNA. And then, there’s race-based trauma: different brands of trauma affecting specific ethnic groups. In America, for instance, the effects of race-based trauma can be found among Black and Indigenous populations, among others. 

“While the impact of trauma on individuals may vary significantly, the impact of trauma on a group of people with a shared history of navigating systemic oppression can often be tracked collectively,” writes therapist and educator Jo Kent Katz, LMHC, in defining the term collective trauma. “Through epigenetics and by directly witnessing those around us, we also inherit the unconscious, learned responses of our ancestors. These patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior were often developed in response to life-threatening events or conditions. Thus, we inherit them as instruments for our own protection. We can refer to these patterns as ancestral trauma or intergenerational trauma.”

In the case of this article, I’ll focus on what I can speak to personally: Jewish trauma (and to be more specific, American Ashkenazi Jewish trauma). Internalized oppression, writes Katz, can describe both trauma held in the body and adaptive behaviors that kept our ancestors alive.

Speaking to the Ashkenazi experience, Katz gives the example of how many Jews of Eastern Europe fled their shtetls during the Pogroms, and hence escaped the Holocaust. “The violence, paired with antisemitic messages that permeated Eastern Europe—that Jews weren’t wanted, didn’t belong, weren’t desirable, and that Jewish safety and survival didn’t matter—activated a felt sense in the body which served as a radar, alerting families to the presence of looming danger and keeping them vigilant, ready to make life or death decisions,” Katz writes. “And as people fled, these messages traveled with them as emotional wounding, as internalized oppression.” 

But the adaptive behaviors that once enabled our ancestors to survive may now be working against us, compromising “our sense of worth and desirability, our sense of agency and connection, our capacity for self-acceptance and belonging.” For Katz, “the inherited patterns of vigilance paired with a sustained readiness to leave at any moment impacts [her] capacity to stay put” and commit to relationships—both symptoms of inherited trauma I’ve noticed in myself as I bounce between New York and Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Israel. 

But the adaptive behaviors that once enabled our ancestors to survive may now be working against us

“How can we tell if it’s safe to let go of these patterns?” Katz asks. “I believe that our task is not to purge ourselves of our patterns entirely. Rather, our task is to build our understanding of these patterns, to build our awareness of our body’s use of these patterns, and to strengthen our sense of agency, individually and in community.”

And that is just what many people—from all backgrounds—are now finding that psychedelics can help with, as they relate to the journey of healing trauma. 

*

Psychedelic research is at an all-time high, as many hope these modalities may foster both individual and collective healing. Researchers have been granted FDA approval to investigate psilocybin (the main psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms) for a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and even physical pain. And the nonprofit MAPS has entered the third and final phase of FDA-approved research looking at MDMA (a.k.a. “ecstasy” or “molly”) as a treatment for PTSD.

MDMA works on trauma at the neuronal level, and can put you more in touch with your body (according to Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, rolling on molly could be a good time to do yoga because you may feel more flexible). In short, MDMA impacts activity in the brain regions governing fear and rational thought, allowing PTSD patients to revisit traumatic memories and transfer them into long-term storage, rather than remaining front-and-center on their mind. It also signals the release of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which engender feelings of trust and safety. 

At the moment, MDMA is still federally illegal. But clinics around the country are already offering ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic also popular in the underground party scene, as an off-label treatment for everything from depression to trauma. And the mental and physiological benefits of cannabis are well-documented and reflected in marijuana legalization measures in more than half the states in the country. Dr. Sue Sisley with MAPS, for example, is only one of countless researchers working on the medical properties of  cannabis; her FDA-approved research focuses on the use of cannabis flower as a treatment for PTSD among veterans.

Meanwhile, in cities and states across North America, psychedelic prohibition has already begun to crumble, with decriminalization measures taking hold in a veritable domino effect.

The mainstreaming of psychedelics is shifting the public conversation around healing and mental health, making it easier to talk about ailments like PTSD when new, promising (and need I say, trendy?) treatments are on the horizon. And the question of Jewish healing has come to the fore in these conversations. Many leaders of the psychedelic movement come from Jewish backgrounds, while countless members of the tribe are looking to psychedelics both for spiritual and therapeutic insights—and not to mention, a little fun, as well. What many are finding—even those who experiment recreationally—is that when used in the right context, entheogens (substances, including psychedelics, that engender spiritual experiences) can work as a medicine and an opening to further explore the conversation around generational trauma.

*

The faces of Jewish trauma are many, ranging from classic antisemitic persecution and violence in its varied forms, to Ashkenormativity and the erasure of JOC and Arab Jewish identity, to the countless anxieties and compromises of being in predominantly non-Jewish social spaces, to more nuanced Jew-on-Jew misdeeds and alienations, even from within the same community. The trauma may be ongoing—or, as the field of epigenetics has shown, inherited. In brief, the theory of epigenetics explores how someone’s lived experiences (such as trauma) may affect their descendants’ gene function or expression. That doesn’t mean the genetic code itself is altered, but merely that the genes act differently. 

“I can tell you clearly that trauma runs in families,” says Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, LMFT, founder of a program called Torah Psychology that’s rooted in the teachings of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. In exploring how trauma works in the body, he points to the polyvagal theory, which describes how the body’s largest nerve—the vagus—engages the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic and sympathetic are two competing nervous systems, he explains. When we exhale we activate the vagus nerve; when we inhale we constrict it. “When you breathe, and slow down your breathing, you’re actually stimulating your vagus nerve and increasing the relaxation response in the body,” Schonbuch says. “Because the vagus nerve passes through your chest and lung area, when you breathe rhythmically, you’re massaging your vagus nerve, and therefore stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system to relax.”

During my 5-MeO trip, when the come-up brought my anxieties to the surface, my sitters guided me through the simple act of breathing. With intention, I slowly inhaled and exhaled my way back down. And then I gave the toad venom another try; with breath in my toolkit, my guides allowed me one more inhalation from the vaporizer, albeit at a lower dose than before. It was an opportunity to use my newfound breathing technique: lying down with my hands on both my chest and gut, feeling the rhythm of the air entering and leaving my body. That day, psychedelics gave me a kind of  artificially initiated trauma experience, during which, with help, I moved through my body’s programmed responses,transforming my fear, resistance, and discomfort into a healing experience. As Rabbi Schonbuch’s observations suggest, that experience wasn’t unique to me.

“Trauma triggers a physiological process that needs to be ‘worked through’ the body. Like the way a goose shudders after it has a confrontation with another goose, or a deer shivers after it’s startled by seeing a person; before it can resume eating, there is a mild tremor that goes through the body,” explains psychiatrist, pharmacologist, and author Dr. Julie Holland. Being stuck in trauma means being stuck in fight-or-flight, in the sympathetic nervous system, she adds. “To heal from trauma, you need to do the hard work of standing your ground, getting into your body, feeling your feelings, and allowing the muscular tension to release, just as you had allowed the trauma to exist in your narrative. Make space for it.” And this is exactly what psychedelics have helped people to do.

Psychedelics can offer us a kind of dis/embodied experience where one is both subjectively immersed within and objectively witnessing their own experience. From this simultaneously in- and out-of-body perspective, it becomes easier to identify where emotional or physical injury lives within our body-mind field, and then to play and work with it in order to move it around and release its hold on us. Entheogens like mushrooms, MDMA, and ayahuasca (which contains DMT) have made me more aware of the beating of my heart, the physical presence of anxiety within my chest. And the only way out, as they say, is through: to acknowledge anxiety, breathe into it, and release it, until the tension simply dissolves—not from avoidance or escape, but through encounter and acceptance. 

Psychedelic scientists have also observed that entheogens can induce a sense of the “divine” or of the unity of all being. Having looked to accounts of mysticism among religious leaders throughout history, researchers have defined the “mystical experience” (psychedelic or not) according to various criteria: it’s built from a sense of oneness or unity, an ineffability (or inability to describe the experience with words), a deeply felt positive mood, a sense of ultimate reality, and the transcendence of time and space, among other features. Indeed, a mystical experience isn’t only an interesting occurrence, but one that could be integral to the healing potential of psychedelics. The magnitude of healing one experiences with the help of a psychedelic often correlates to the magnitude of one’s mystical experience. 

It’s important to note, however, that psychedelics don’t always guarantee a “mystical experience,” nor is it necessarily the be-all and end-all of a trip. “Psychedelics help us reconnect to the things that matter—to love and community, to peace and sharing our abundance,” Holland adds. “Feeling held by the universe, knowing there is a universal latticework of love that is holding you in its web, this is a deep, peaceful feeling that can help you feel safe and cared for.” And in turn, she says, such feelings and insights can help you spend extended time in the parasympathetic mode, where the body can not only rest, digest, and repair, but also, experience neuroplasticity—“which means learning a new way of being.”

Findings like these have sparked a psychedelic Jewish renaissance, building off underground work that’s been happening for decades. The emerging common theme is that many Jews are approaching their healing—with the help of psychedelics—through a Jewish framework. I’ve both observed this movement and experienced it firsthand. From taking MDMA on a festive Shabbos to kindle my experience of Judaism’s ecstatic heights, to combining mushrooms and cacao in a ceremonial setting centered around Jewish music and chanting, I’ve found religious practice and narrative offering Jews a sense of groundedness from which to launch. In other words, Jewish ritual gives us the language to understand the psychedelic experience, as well as embodied practices to integrate its lessons—whether that be through meditation, chant, shuckling in prayer, wrapping tefillin, learning (tripping on) Torah, dancing, or doing acts of service. 

Traditional Jewish narratives provide ample support for the unifying perspectives and healing experiences that psychedelics can provide. The Torah is a veritable catalogue of familial, societal, and even global traumas, in both a general human and a specifically Jewish context: humanity’s expulsion from the garden, God’s flooding of the world, the communal dispersion and communication breakdowns following the crumbling Tower of Babel, the Akeidah, generations of fraternal conflict, Egyptian slavery and the plagues, just to name a few. Similarly, after the destruction of both Temples and the ensuing loss of Jewish sovereignty and exile, the rabbis developed a slew of new ritual technologies to address and compensate for the trauma of such loss. Liturgical prayer replaced the daily order of sacrifices, and Torah replaced land, becoming the diasporic people’s “portable homeland.” Rituals of memory, story, song, wine, and mourning were creatively concocted to allow a beleaguered people to revisit the traumatic events of their past and transform them into transcendent opportunities for growth and spiritual connection. On a more metaphysical note, before creation itself, the Kabbalists posit, the existence of a shattered world preceded this one, setting the stage for our own purpose in life: predicated on gathering the “fallen sparks” from that earlier wreckage and performing a Tikkun Olam. Hasidic philosophy, too, postulates such redemptive principles as “descent for the sake of ascent,” and encourages everyone to see the good in even the most unimaginably traumatic circumstances. As my own experiences have shown me, psychedelic experience can set the stage for exactly these kinds of endurance, connection, redemption, and unity.

Jewish ritual gives us the language to understand the psychedelic experience, as well as embodied practices to integrate its lessons

Trauma, says Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, if worked through and integrated, can inspire us to do good in this world. The founder of Shefa, a Jewish psychedelic healing nonprofit, Kamenetz aims to “honor pain, suffering, and lack.” “That’s the healing,” he says. “To be okay with those pain points.” Kamenetz describes his goal of having uniquely trained Jewish guides for psychedelic psychotherapy, with the preparation and integration inspired by high Jewish wisdom and mystical knowledge. “The anxiety of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world comes through,” on a day-to-day level, he says, but it doesn’t need to come through in therapy, too. In other words, rather than having to explain yourself (and your unique cultural perspective) to a supposedly “neutral” therapist, having someone who already speaks your language not only assuages any feelings of otherness between patient and healer, but may allow one to make quicker progress. The psychedelic tenet of set and setting applies to plain old therapy, too. 

“God has created a model of living in a broken world,” says Kamenetz. “What I’m hoping for is that psychedelic psychotherapy will offer us, not an end to pain and suffering—this is not a messianic movement outright—but a way to embrace the cracks and fissures that are part of a greater whole. I want to advocate for darkness and light, empty and full, present and absent.” Psychedelics are apt tools to engage with this dialectic, and investigate how it plays out in our psyche and our soul. Kamenetz’s initiative is still nascent: his organization, Shefa, seeks to eventually provide seekers with a Jewish framework for direct spiritual experience, preparing them for and providing integration support after a psychedelic experience in the context of mainstream therapeutic and religious culture. Some of that work includes research and publications (like readers on the holidays, through a psychedelic lens); education and community-building (such as psychedelic integration circles, with Jewish wisdom as both guide and backdrop to the conversation), and preparing for a post-prohibition paradigm in which psychedelic therapy may legally be integrated into a Jewish context. 

Kamenetz isn’t the only one doing this work. Others include DMT researcher Dr. Rick Strassman—whose book DMT and the Soul of Prophecy draws on parallels between DMT consciousness and prophetic states as described in the Torah—or thinkers like Rabbi Harry Rozenberg and (Jewish) Reverend Danny Nemu, who have taken a fine-toothed comb to Jewish texts, sussing out the uses of plant medicine in Biblical times. Some of us have even considered recreating these ancient rituals. And on the ground in Brooklyn and upstate New York, Aaron Genuth has founded a “heimish entheogenic” nonprofit Darkhei Rephua (Paths of Healing)—which recently partnered with a ketamine provider to carry out a series of studies on 50 Chasidim, including descendents of Holocaust survivors, who engage in heavy recreational drug use and/or suffer from epigentic trauma. The organization has future plans to provide psychedelic integration circles to this group, as well, once they’ve received treatment. 

Others are using plant medicine, like ayahuasca, for the sake of not only healing, but also conflict resolution. Indeed, one anecdotal study looks at Israelis and Palestinians drinking ayahuasca together, coming to terms and finding compassion with each other as neighbors. 

And there’s even more going on underground—from plant medicine ceremonies among Hasidim grappling with their relationship to spirituality and religion, to mushroom prayer circles set to niggunim. From my own firsthand experience, I can tell you that there is a psychedelic movement growing throughout the Jewish world. 

*

“In Judaism, we are taught to reflect on trauma to highlight redemption,” says Dr. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It’s not to remember trauma for the sake of thinking ‘woe is me,’ but looking back at past adversity from the vantage point of no longer being in it, to remind ourselves how far we’ve come. Judaism at its core models posttraumatic growth.”

Both biblically and historically, the idea behind remembering past challenges in the Jewish narrative is to better and more wholeheartedly engage with the good and meet the present moment. “It’s not just that we survived, it’s that we survive and we flourish,” she says. “The reason to remember things like that we were once slaves in Egypt and the Temple’s destruction is to acknowledge the low points, so we can appreciate the high points and also know that we are equipped to survive hardship again if need be.”

At the same time, Yehuda points out, the framework of the Jewish religion offers containers within which to remember and engage with trauma, without dwelling in it beyond what’s healthy. Take Tisha B’Av, for example, or a yartzeit. “We go from sunset one day to another day. We honor it, we remember it, but we don’t let it spill into all areas of our lives,” she says. “That’s the beautiful secret of coping with trauma: We don’t try to forget it or remove it from consciousness, we make room for it—within limits—to make room for everything else, also.”

And psychedelics, she says, can potentially aid with that by helping people confront aspects of themselves, and their immediate or ancestral history, that they have wrestled with, denied, or given an inordinate amount of attention to at the expense of other parts of themselves or their mental health. “It is not uncommon for ancestors to appear during a psychedelic experience and let the traveler know, ‘You’ve got this—don’t deny it or let it take too much space—embrace it and see what comes next.’”

In the spirit of the Talmudic adage—“From the forest itself comes the handle of the axe that fells it”—perhaps there’s an opportunity here to apply psychedelic consciousness in conjunction with Jewish tradition and wisdom to heal our uniquely Jewish wounds. If our own Jewishness lies at the root of so much of our trauma, then our Jewishness itself may also be the mechanism for growth, transcendence and healing. And we’ve got the tools and traditions to get us there—with a little help from our friends.


Madison Margolin is a California/New York based journalist, focused on covering psychedelics, cannabis, and Jewish culture. She is the co-founder of DoubleBlind Magazine, a print and digital publication covering psychedelics and all they intersect with, from policy and social equity to science and spirituality. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vice, Tablet, High Times, and other outlets. You can find more info about her work here.