Awakening feelings about 9/11

I recognize that for younger people, maybe even for older people, that terrible tragedy has been forgotten.

The twin towers after being hit, 9/11 (photo credit: SEAN ADAIR/ REUTERS)
The twin towers after being hit, 9/11
(photo credit: SEAN ADAIR/ REUTERS)
I was recently at a gathering where Israeli teenagers were present, and asked several of them if they know what occurred on September 11, 2001.
One said that was when one of the Israeli wars concluded. Another said it was when Rosh Hashanah began that year. A third said it was when he was born. The fourth gave me a bit of hope when she said, “That was the day when the twin towers in New York were destroyed.”
 I recognize that for younger people, maybe even for older people, that terrible tragedy has been forgotten. My son explained to me why that is so.
“There have been so many terrorist acts since then, how can anyone wade through all the dates, places and descriptions of death and destruction that have occurred since 9/11?”
My son, his wife and their young son were away from their US home on that day. They were fortunate because they worked next to the buildings that fell as if they were tiny toys. He understood what happened that day because of his daily proximity to the modern giant structures which were completely destroyed.
Why does 9/11 sear me so deeply? My wife and I were 250 kilometers away in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the time, where in great fear and trepidation, we could only watch and listen to the greatest peacetime tragedy in American history on television, Internet or radio. However, something happened to me personally in the wake of the terrible sadness.
How does one deal with a holocaust so immense when it is not THE Holocaust which we Jews endured as a people? For me, it was by davening (praying) in our synagogue. Next, a meeting of the local ministers, priests and rabbis was held. We discussed fervently and  openly what we, as the religious leaders of the city and adjacent small towns, should undertake in order to provide hope to the inhabitants of our particular area. Interestingly, the first group we wanted to reach (were) college students. To me this meant to soothe the inhabitants of our particular area. Interestingly, the first group we wanted to reach was college students. To me this meant that those involved in academic studies to build a future career should understand what had just crashed into their lives.
A former member of the Scranton congregation, Arthur Magida, had been asked by the Belief Network to prepare a statement which would be broadcast throughout the USA. His words were ever so powerful. Moreover, he had sent his statement to me for my own renewal. His words moved me, so I brought them to that clergy gathering and read them for all present.
What impacted on me so was that Magida provided a structure for people of all faiths to deal with those dark and trying days.
“ENGAGE IN tikkun olam, says Judaism. Repair the world. Make it a good world, an honorable world, a decent world, a world worthy of its Creator, Who had such high hopes for it.”
Magida than began to deal with the tragedy which had occurred.
“Don’t inflict injury through act or deed, to any sentient creature,” he wrote. “Engage in good conduct, right conduct, blessed conduct. Recognize the specialness of all of us, our worth, our decency.” There is a uniqueness in each of us which Magida wanted to emphasize so that we would better recognize who we are.
“And now something indecent has happened, and it strikes at the very core, not just of our nation, but at something deeper and more fragile than that; at our sense of who we are and what we are and how we are to live our lives. We try to repair the world and it collapses down on us.” Like the prophets of old he called out, “What can we do at such moments? Be kind and remember that we are not saintly, but pervious to calls for rage and revenge.”
Magida suggested a path on which to tread, and in that calamitous time of 9/11, we needed to hear such suggestions with clarity. “Try to be loyal to the best part of ourselves... the remembrance that we harbor goodness and decency.”
He concluded by briefly comparing the structural and human loss.
“More has been taken from us than two landmarks and yet-to-be counted lives; lacking such remembrance will scourge our humanity and our decency, which are too invaluable to be added to the notches already on the gun handles of those responsible for Tuesday’s frightful carnage.”
As I concluded reading this statement, all the clergy present applauded. They said aloud “What a lift this has given us as we go to address our congregants and others to whom we will speak.”
I copied the statement many times and, initially, took it to the college students with whom I met. They had many questions about God’s involvement, about security failures and about how 9/11 would affect their lives. Not all of their questions could be answered, but the 1,000 or so students in the colleges in the surrounding areas knew that some people, the clergy at least, were really concerned about them. That was the greatest lesson I learned in this tragedy: People want to know that they are not alone, and that there are people who truly want to help and provide solace.
Two services in our synagogue were moving because they were linked with Jewish prayer and the tenets of Judaism. The first was the Shabbat service on the Friday night after 9/11.
THE WORLD was certainly reeling. People were not sure what would be. At our regular Kabbalat Shabbat services, 25 people might be in attendance. I understood that this Shabbat it would be different.
I asked the custodian to bring out 100 chairs in addition to 75 seats in the chapel. The service had not begun. It had to be started a bit later. Our congregants poured in until more than 300 were present. No one was turned away. How necessary, I felt, for them to be present.
As we began Kabbalat Shabbat, I asked everyone to rise and the Cantor led us in the “Star Spangled Banner.” Since our synagogue, like most in the US has an American flag proudly displayed, we all turned and looked at it. Some saluted. Some put their hands over their hearts. Some war veterans wore their caps for the service, and some people cried – both women and men. Those moments were parallel to what was going on the city where almost every block had an American flag flying.
When I took the pulpit, I first asked everyone to rise and recite the Kaddish mourner’s prayer for the nephew of a doctor in our congregation. The young man in his 30s had been killed in the Pentagon where he worked. Most people have forgotten that Washington, DC, was a major target. The only place the first plane was able to hit was the Pentagon. The plane, which the assailants took over before the passengers overpowered them, was headed for the White House. The passengers triumphed over these terrorists.
Sadly, the plane went down and everyone aboard was killed.
I read from President Bush’s address to the nation the night of 9/11. Then I added a few of my own thoughts.
“I feel today that we are one nation – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, black and white and brown. We are one nation, indivisible, united in our fear and outrage. Our compassion and resolve from now on September 11 will be a second Memorial Day in honor of our civilian casualties of war.
“Each of us is a reservoir of hope and strength. Surely we all saw hope in the firefighters who stood in burning debris, with boots melting, trying so hard to find more survivors. That hope should be a part of all our lives. We must do what we can to help. Ve’im lo achshav, aymatai? If not now, when?”
Then I asked everyone present to rise, and we offered a prayer for America and for all of us. As we stood, we sang “Hatikvah” as we looked proudly at the Israeli flag. On this 9/11 eighteen years later, let us pray that terrorism will be combated and peace will reign.