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Walking the Narrow Bridge Together: Jewish Teachings to Help Kids Cope With Sandy Hook and Beyond

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There's been a lot of talk in the news about what to say to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook. A steady stream of experts attempting to provide some sort of parental protocol for addressing this unimaginable tragedy with our kids: Find out what our child knows before divulging too many details. Limit our kids' exposure to scary news reports. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives know how to keep them from harm's way. But even the best advice seems to fall short in this case as it's ultimately impossible for anyone -- our children or ourselves -- to make sense of that which doesn't.

And yet as a Jewish parent, I have a set of resources at my fingertips -- parenting power tools, if you will -- seemingly custom designed to help raise strong, resilient, compassionate children who can cope in the face of hardship. Indeed, every religion has such parenting resources woven into its fabric, as faith is so often where we turn for answers in times like these.

The following components of the rich Jewish tradition have helped me carve my own parental path through these past few dark days.

The Shema

"Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." The Shema is considered the most important prayer in the Jewish religion as it perfectly and succinctly reaffirms of our faith and connection with God. The tragic news out of Newtown can make our kids' world feel frightening and out of control. By saying the Shema, this sense of powerless is replaced by spirituality and belief in a higher power that will help guide and sustain them through good times and bad.

The Haggadah

The word haggadah means a storytelling. Sharing tales of overcoming hardship is part of the Jewish religion by design and can be a powerful tool for building our children's resilience. The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University has shown this premise on a scientific level. A long-term study by MARIAL's found that kids whose parents told family stories of overcoming personal difficulties (large and small) had significantly better coping skills than those whose parents did not. Each year at Passover, we read our Jewish children the Hagaddah recounting our People's Exodus from Egypt. At Hanukkah, we tell them the tale of the tiny yet mighty Maccabee army, and on Purim, the story of how brave Queen Esther saved all the Jews from the wicked Haman. From holiday to holiday and everyday in between, the Jewish narrative reassures our children of the power of perseverance and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Tikkun Olam

Senseless acts of violence like this confirm that our world is indeed in need of repair. The Hebrew term Tikkun Olam means just that, repairing the world. Joining forces with our children to pick up litter in a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or doing other acts of Tikkun Olam can feel like our own little triumph over evil -- a tiny step toward restoring that which was broken and tilting the balance scales toward good.

Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim

There's no doubt that the school shootings in Newtown shake us to the core. But rather than focusing on the horror of what's transpired, we should encourage our children (and ourselves) to channel our energies into feeling compassion for the people that were affected by this tragedy. Judaism considers giving tzedakah (charity) and partaking in gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) to be our most fundamental responsibility as human beings. Engaging our children in collecting money to support the struggling community in Newtown or making cards for the families and students at Sandy Hook school, we can help facilitate this cognitive shift from fear to a much healthier compassion.*

Jewish Courage

There is a beautiful Hebrew song based on the sage words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m'od v'ha-ikkar lo l'fahed klal. The world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear. "Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear," writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World." This is not to suggest that we encourage our kids to throw caution to the wind altogether. They should, of course, be sensible and vigilant. But then it's time to move forward: Skipping into their busy classrooms, laughing and playing with friends on the schoolyard, walking that inevitably narrow bridge with a zest for life and faith in the world's ultimate goodness. Enjoy the journey together.

*Newtown has set up a PO box for condolences sent to their community. The address is
P.O. Box 3700 Newtown, Connecticut 06470