Judaism Honors Our Children’s Questions


Judaism offers much wisdom to help people in our communities cultivate the resilience to recover from the aftereffects of Sandy, a storm that created a unique situation affecting an estimated 54 million people in 24 states.

Many of those affected are our youngest, who need the guidance and examples of adults and the larger community to understand their experiences in such a way that they emerge stronger. The Jewish community has much to turn to in our tradition for finding this safe space between upheaval and stability. It is precisely at such a time that people are most likely to turn to seek faith and hope in Jewish community and to see our institutions as a “holding environment” in which they might once again make sense of their experiences.

Judaism puts the questions of children front and center. As on Passover, we count on children to ask the hard questions, and we must take the time to address them – honestly, but in terms they can comprehend. Many families are now squarely in the midst of putting together their own journey from suffering to recovery. Kids need an outlet to communicate their fears and anxieties – by telling stories and drawing pictures of what happened, where they were, and with whom. One of the many lessons Jewish tradition teaches us through the “haggadah” or the telling of the Passover story, is that by claiming the story as our own, we are empowered to see details of help, of caring, and of redemption. Parents, teachers and adults can help to emphasize those aspects of the narrative so that it becomes less frightening and overwhelming and begins to reveal themes of comfort and strength.

Judaism also has much to offer in this transitional period of recovery. Our tradition is exquisitely sensitive to thresholds, “liminal” spaces that we occupy during a transition. Judaism marks transition in the worlds of both time and space. Judaism heralds the entry into such liminal spaces, whether with an amulet, such as a mezuzah marking a door, or a blessing for waking (“God who has restored my soul within me, you are faithful beyond measure”) or prayers for rain or dew through which our agriculturally bound tradition indicates its anxiety about our having enough to eat, or the traveler’s prayer that recognizes the vulnerability we experience when we are away from our homes and dependent upon others for our security. Perhaps the most important one for children is the bedtime shema, not only due to the evocative nature of the tefillah, but also the intimately personal conception of a God who is present with us even in the most vulnerable state of sleep that is comforting.

Each of these rituals and symbols teaches us to seek the presence of God, community and faith, even when it eludes us. It is through the lessons of these rituals and blessings that we can give our children, especially in challenging times, a sense that in spite of the difficulties, they have the ability to recover and move forward with life. We want them to emerge from the experience of the storm having a narrative of coping rather than a narrative of fear. Adding blessings to the day for regular activities such as eating and sleeping, in whatever language the family is most comfortable, can help bring a greater sense of faith and confidence to children.

As we enter the holiday season this week, let us look to find ways to embrace it as we do every year. Let us be thankful for what we have, who we have, and who we are. For many families, things have changed. And yet we are hopeful that with time, things will get better.

The last four lines of Adon Olam ring particularly true at this time of recovery: “I place my spirit in God’s care; my body too can feel God near. When I sleep, as when I wake, God is with me; I have no fear.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly.