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After terrorist attacks, fearing fear itself

ENCINO, Calif., Sept. 24 (JTA) — My husband, Larry, and I have been training, or so I thought, for the upcoming Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day, a 60-mile walk in California from Santa Barbara to Malibu.

But now I realize we’ve really been training for a grave new world. For when an act of God or, more likely, an act of Godlessness, blindsides Los Angeles, shutting down our streets and transportation systems.

“I always wondered,” Larry said a few weeks ago, “if I could walk the 11 miles home from work in an emergency. Now I know I can.”

And now I know I can walk to my sons’ schools, the farthest being 13 miles away.

Worse, I know I might have to.

For on Sept. 11, with the force of a 767 hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center, reality slammed into our lives, forever destroying our concept of invincibility.

And so, with a Californian’s knee-jerk reaction to any crisis, I replenish the emergency backpacks with radios, batteries, work gloves, flashlights, flares, power bars, water and walking shoes. And I buy a longer-life battery for my cell phone.

My husband and I put a hold on our oldest son’s early-decision application to a university 3,000 miles from home.

But in truth, I don’t know how to prepare. Or for what. I can only guess that the next attack will be unforeseen, unfathomable — and deadly. And I wonder if I should be lining up my family for smallpox vaccinations. Or stockpiling gas masks, guns and canned goods. Or merely praying.

As a mother, I have worked to create a risk-free world for my four sons, now aged 10, 12, 14 and 17. I have put them in car seats, seatbelts and helmets. I have removed alar from their apple juice, drawstrings from their sweatshirt hoods and second-hand smoke from their environments. I have taught them not to talk to strangers or pick up guns. And I have electronically tethered them with cell phones and pagers.

As a Jew, I have merely been following the danger-avoidance dictates of my religion.

“One should guard oneself against all things that are dangerous, because ‘regulations concerning health and life are made more stringent than ritual laws,’ ” the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, states.

That’s why the Talmud tells us, “Breed not a savage dog, nor keep a loose stairway.”

But savage dogs and loose stairways pale in comparison to biological, chemical and apocalyptic attacks, horrors we can’t possibly guard against.

Ironically, I also worry that I’m overprotecting my kids, doing them a disservice by destroying their sense of self-confidence. But my friend Jody Kussin, a child psychologist and mother of three, assures me there is nothing to suggest that, in response to the recent world-altering events, parents are guilty of overprotecting.

“Unless you’re keeping your children in the house all day, keeping them out of school and building a bomb shelter in the backyard, I wouldn’t be concerned,” she says.

And I worry that I’m not concentrating enough on my sons’ emotional needs. My rabbi, Zachary Shapiro, associate rabbi at Los Angeles’ University Synagogue, tells me, “We need to give children constant reassurance that they’re in a safe place when they’re with us.” He recommends, especially for younger kids, a nighttime ritual that includes prayers such as the Shema and the Hashkiveinu, a prayer for peace that includes the words, “Shield us and remove from us foe, pestilence, sword, famine and sorrow.”

For the older kids, the rabbi advocates tzedakah activities, such as organizing a clothing drive, giving blood or collecting donations. This is in keeping with Judaism’s teaching “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Meanwhile, as a parent, I take solace in the fact that these terrorist attacks, as well as most crises and disasters, are much scarier to me than to my sons. I have a greater ability to comprehend the seriousness as well as the long-term ramifications. Or perhaps I’ve succumbed to phobophobia, the fear of fear itself.

Also, I take solace in the fact that statistics are on my side. Yes, Rabbi Harold Kushner has indelibly and eloquently taught us that “bad things happen to good people.” But they happen rarely and atypically.

In fact, according to Arnold Barnett, a specialist in applied probability and statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, they happen very atypically. Even taking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into account, each of us has a 1 in 7 million chance of being killed in an airplane crash.

“This means,” he explains, “that you would have to get on a plane every day for the next 19,000 years to have a reasonable chance of being killed.”

But most of all, I take solace in the fact that, anytime and anywhere, thanks to my training for the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day, I can grab my emergency backpack and walk to fetch my sons.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.

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