On September 11, 2001, our lives were changed forever. 2,983 souls perished on that day: in New York, in Washington, in Shanksville, PA. We were a world in shock; a nation in mourning; a city in rubble and ashes. At 8 o’clock in the morning, there was not a cloud in the sky. It was the bluest, purest, calmest sky I could ever remember seeing. By 9:30, nothing would ever be the same – not even the sky.
For the better part of the past thirty years, I have been privileged to belong to a study group of some fifteen extraordinary rabbis. All of us attended the New York campus of Hebrew Union College and were ordained at approximately the same time, in the early to mid-1980’s. We are all quite close with Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Senior Liturgy Professor at HUC, and we wrote our rabbinic theses under his mentorship. We all live and work in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. For all these years, this very special group of colleagues and friends has been getting together a few times a year, usually at HUC in New York, to study. In many ways, the exact subject matter of the day is secondary. What really matters is that we’re together, maintaining and strengthening our relationships as friends and colleagues, and doing what Jews make it their life’s commitment to do: learning. This October 14 was one of these precious days together for us. But for this one, instead of within the familiar surroundings of HUC, we gathered for our day of learning a bit further downtown, at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
We spent the morning on our own, making our way through the collection, accompanied by our own thoughts, and memories, and feelings of the ways in which we experienced that horrific day and its aftermath. But then we gathered into a conference room and spent the entire afternoon with the Museum Director, Alice Greenwald. Alice had been a congregant at Temple Micah of Washington, DC, where our “convener-in-chief,” Rabbi Danny Zemel, is the Rabbi. Alice is a veteran in the field of museum direction. She has served in directorial roles at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Skirball Museum at HUC in Los Angeles, and the Spertus Museum of Judaica in Chicago. When Alice was invited to New York some nine years ago to take the reins of this enormous project at Ground Zero, she knew it was a challenge that she couldn’t pass up.
Alice spoke with us about the multiple layers of what this museum would have to accomplish, and of the decision-making process at each successive step. This is an archaeological site. Certain structural elements need to be maintained. While the towers fell to rubble, some of the underground structures remained. Pieces of the buildings had to be incorporated: the last column, the only windowpane found intact, the “survivors’ staircase,” and so on. Then there was the memorabilia – personal effects: eyeglasses, shoes, a bible, papers upon papers, recordings of last telephone calls, firefighters’ hats, etc. And, of course, there were the people: their names, their faces, their lives – 2,983 of them. And yes, there are human remains still contained in a walled area at the site. The hope is that with every passing year and every additional technological advance in identifying human remains, some of them will be identified, and their families will put them to rest according to their own traditions.
As Jews, we are well acquainted with memory. For us it is at once a commandment, a responsibility, an honor, and a burden. Alice and her colleagues were charged with helping us all with the act of remembering what was, and remains, this all-encompassing trauma. Ultimately Alice observed that the museum’s intent is not to provide answers, but to raise questions. How do we live in the post-9/11 world, in which extremism and terrorism are ever-present realities? How can we go on to live our lives in the face of such brutality and destruction? What is it that would drive a human being to make the decisions and take the actions that those hijackers did on that morning? For the children born after 9/11, this is the reality of the only world they know. It is our reality as well. The hope, as projected by the museum, however, is the triumph of the human spirit, and the values of humanitarianism, rationalism, goodness, and peace. That is our hope as well.