Posted on March 10th, 2011 2 comments
A few weeks ago, I was part of a conversation with an interdenominational group of rabbis about how we will mark the tenth Yahrzeit of 9-11. I was somewhat surprised with the range of and complexity of emotion that emerged from our collective psyche. The only easy observation from that discussion was that there is need to think about how we will approach this anniversary. To help understand how that thinking is emerging, I turned to the community of HUC-JIR alumni for some initial opinions and insights. Planning is only in the beginning stages, so what follows are early thoughts. It is my hope and intention to return to this topic again in the coming months. I welcome your thoughts and input on this topic; your insights, liturgical and ritual suggestions can all help build thoughtful remembrances.
–Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.
9-11 vacillates between personal loss and collective experience of tragedy. We all remember where we were on 9-11. We all live with the consequences, reactions to and realities of that day. Judaism has in it distinct rituals and liturgy for both individual and collective losses. But those events that affect us on both the communal and individual level are not directly addressed by our tradition. How then, as we approach the tenth Yahrzeit are we to memorialize 9-11?
Where we were ten years ago does impact how we think about memorizing that day. David Adelson, of East End Temple in Manhattan, had been at the congregation for just over a year when the planes hit the twin towers. His own experience and memory 9-11 is integrated with those of the community that he continues to serve as well as personal. On his days off that fall he was a volunteer chaplain working at the recovery center. The immediacy of the events touched even the little and disconnected elements of congregational life; Adelson recalls that three shabbatot later he stood waiting with the family of a bat mitzvah outside the synagogue they could vividly smell of fire and smoke from ground zero. Though he is only beginning to think about how to mark the tenth anniversary, this mix of personal and collective will undoubtedly be important.
In 2001, Mary Zamore was working in Westfield, New Jersey at a congregation that was deeply affected by the destruction of the Twin Towers. A few years later she moved to serve a congregation just west enough of Manhattan that the congregrants were not as directly touched. In Westfield, post 9-11, “when you met a new person, you would compare notes on where you were that day,” explained Zamore but that did not happen as frequently in Morristown. On the 5th anniversary, she preached a sermon on healing but realized that her congregants may have experienced the event differently than she did in Westfield. Sarah Hronsky was still in rabbinical school in 2001 and missed out on what continues to be remembered as one of the most meaningful and spiritual services in the history of the congregation. Recognizing the difference between our own experiences and the memory of the congregation is a theme raised repeatedly.
Many communities have not focused on 9-11 as a day of particular congregational significance in recent years. When Steven Sirbu came took a pulpit in Teaneck NJ, in 2003, he welcomed the broader community into the congregation for an interfaith memorial service. But since then the local Committee for Patriotic Observances, which marks Flag Day, Memorial Day and the like, has taken on the communal observance with only token clergy representation. Many congregations have been marking it on the closest Shabbat though some like Adelson’s have let it slip by in recent years and he is not expecting it to become an annual event. “This 10th, may be the last 9-11, service we do for a while,” according to Adelson. For some, like Hronsky, who has family in the military, it is not just about what happened ten years ago, it is about what is happening now and the sacrifices being made which are, in her words, “important for us to remember as a country.” Several rabbis, who spoke off the record and who are only beginning to think towards the fall, feel that the memorial needs to be interfaith to send a message of unity and common purpose. Yet in some settings, like the JCCs or Hospitals, remembering 9-11 may fit into the institutional setting.
On a practical note, Sirbu pointed out that for many congregations, Hebrew school will start on the eleventh of September this year, opening the question of how we might communicate this memory of loss with people who have no memory of the event itself. Teaching such things to children is difficult. Those like Adelson in New York can point to the skyline and speak to the loss through experience but as Zamore points out, “we have to be careful when we talk about New York. It is not an abstract place for our kids, the way it might be for those in Chicago, but a place where they and their families go all the time. We need to be thoughtful not to paint it as a place of danger.” She recommends that we turn to the lessons learned by Jewish educators from our collective experience teaching the Shoah and other recent tragedies.
Every congregation will have to find their own way in this new and still forming understanding of what occurred on the 11th day of the 9th month of 2001, which involved four planes, a handful of terrorists, many heroes and much loss. As Hronsky point out, we would do well to share our experiences and plans, our liturgical suggestions and poetic readings, so that we can help each other craft both memory and meaning.