You often hear how important it is to find a therapist who is a good fit. In fact, if you Google “making sure your therapist is a good fit,” you can find a plethora of articles on the topic. Most of the articles I have read seem to stress the importance of finding a therapist who: you can trust, has matching availability, has expertise in working with the issues you are having, sets proper boundaries, does not make you feel judged, and respects your goals for therapy. These are all extremely important characteristics to look for in a therapist, but I feel there is a topic often missing from this list: finding a therapist who has an understanding of, and competency in, your cultural/ethnic background.
As a therapist, cultural competency and historical context is everything to me. Without it we run the risk of responding from a place of bias and disconnecting from empathy. A therapist who does not have an understanding of culture may, at best, not develop a therapeutic bond with clients and, at worst, discriminate, pathologize, and not help a client decrease their psychological/emotional distress.
As a Jewish American woman it was always important to me to find a therapist who understands my Jewish culture. My culture plays an intricate and essential part in how I see the world, communicate, navigate stressing situations, view safety, and structure my week. It also informs my work ethic, responses to power and oppression, relationship to words and emotional expression, political views, interests, family relationships, values, and goals.
It is very difficult to find articles on culturally sensitive treatment for American Jews. When I was in graduate school I was pleased that so much emphasis was placed on cultural competency, but I found the absence of any information on Jewish culture/religion deafening. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find an article written by Schlosser entitled Affirmative Psychotherapy for American Jews. The article eloquently expressed what I have experienced as a Jewish client, what I have experienced clinically as a therapist to Jewish clients, and what I have discovered in my research on Jewish generational trauma and culturally sensitive care.
I believe, and Schlosser echoes, that the reason why it is so hard to find articles on the subject of culturally sensitive treatment for American Jews is tied directly to the root of Jewish invisibility. Schlosser writes that “…Christian privilege operates to ensure that Jewish issues often go unnoticed.” There are, in fact, many issues that are specific to American Jews and may be impacting their psychological well-being. It is essential for therapists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as well as Jewish clients, to understand these issues in order to ensure that therapists are giving and clients are receiving culturally sensitive care.
There are so many different ways to be Jewish. Judaism is both an ethnicity and a religion, and there is no correct way to express Jewish culture or observe Jewish faith. Jews come from all over the globe. It is also a common misconception that all Jews are white, yet there are many Jews of color who have lineage from Northern Africa or West Asia.
Most Jews, no matter where they come from or how they express their faith, are likely to be affected overtly or vicariously from antisemitism, the Shoah (Holocaust), internalized antisemitism, and Jewish invisibility (Schlosser).
As a therapist I have had the privilege of collaborating with many Jewish clients. I have sat with third generation survivors who are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma which may be directly related to the trauma of the Holocaust. They are often confused and overwhelmed about the intensity of their symptoms and the seeming lack of connection to their daily lives. I am always struck by how many times antisemitism, internalized antisemitism, Jewish law, family customs, and the Jewish connection to cognition and emotions have entered into and deepened the work.
This, of course, does not mean that you have to be Jewish in order to be a culturally sensitive therapist for American Jews. If a Jewish therapist is experiencing internalized antisemitism, they may not be able to provide care for a client whose narrative revolves around their Jewish culture. By the same token, if a therapist has negative views towards religious observances they may not be able to provide unbiased therapy towards a religious Jew. What I believe is the most important, is that all clients feel empowered to look for a therapist who understands them culturally and that all psychotherapists are engaged in educating themselves about different cultures, including Jewish culture, in order to provide culturally sensitive care.
I recently found a paper I wrote on this very topic, and I thought I would share the last sentence with you.
“If water can wear down stone then hopefully antisemitism, discrimination, and prejudice of all marginalized groups can be eliminated, but until that time, it is essential to spend time to learn the culture, history of discrimination, religion, and practice of all marginalized cultural groups, including the Jewish people, in order to ensure culturally sensitive counseling.”