Where We Are and Where We Are Going

Robert LichtmanBy Robert Lichtman, Chief Jewish Learning Officer

Today is September 11. Today marks 16 years since the mass murder that took place on our soil—to our east in New York, to our west in Pennsylvania, and to our south in Washington, D.C. On that day, we were surrounded by death and confusion; today, each one of us is surrounded by all the others of us in mourning, in solace, and in solidarity.

The fact that it is said so often makes it no less true:  The events of that date changed us. It made us into people we would rather not be. We would rather be trusting than suspicious. We would rather be enthusiastically friendly than merely polite. We would rather close our eyes and sway to the music than have to keep them pried open as the soundtrack of the 21st century plays in the background, with the lyrics: If you see something, say something.

The murder of nearly 3,000 people in a blinding act of hatred, some in just an instant, others enduring prolonged and agonizing uncertainty, demands that we pause, remember, and reflect.

Many hundreds of New York’s bravest and finest did their jobs that day. They saved lives. But 412 of them did not survive to see another day. Sometimes we forget that by simply donning a jacket, a hat, a badge, these colleagues of ours, these friends of ours, these heroes of ours, publicly pronounce their willingness to risk their lives for ours. And just because they re-commit every day makes it no less brave; it makes it all the more so. And it does not matter if the adversary is called Al Qaida, or ISIS, or Nazis, or Hurricane Harvey, or Irma or Jose. Every day we thank our security team here at the Federation. We should say it more often.  We salute your courage and never take it for granted. Thank you, and God bless you.

People have a way of sharing their memories of where they were on significant occasions. It’s understandable because the events sometimes literally shake us up.  It’s a human thing to do, and thank God, despite all the changes we have endured since September 11, 2001, we are still human.

We are about to enter the new Jewish year of 5778. Jewish tradition tells us that we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, now because this is when God completed the creation of the universe with the capstone achievement of placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It does not take long after that for them to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. It is then that we hear the first question posed in the Torah – the question God asks of them is not “Why did you do that?” The question is not “Where were you?”  The question is “Where are you?”

We are a people of collective memory – Zachor – Remember! Our memories are not simply stored away; our collective memories inform our lives; they forge our future.

Perhaps it is time though, while we safeguard the memories of September 11, 2001, that we do more than just remember where we were, let us consider where we are. And where we are going.

Every morning during this Hebrew month of Elul, except for Shabbat, the shofar is sounded as a literal wake-up call that Rosh Hashanah is coming. If sounded with confidence and if heard correctly, it is a bracing experience that helps one focus and re-focus his or her efforts and intentions in preparation for a new year.

We will do this here, too.  Thanks to the participation of some of our colleagues, a shofar will sound here at Federation each morning at 9:15. It will last less than 30 seconds; that is all the time it takes to hear the question: Where are you? Though it may take an hour, a day, or a lifetime to answer. But as we enter not only a new Jewish year, we enter a new program year, a new campaign year, a time when we approach all that we do, anew – it is a time to ground ourselves and to extend ourselves to sustain and to nurture an optimistic and inclusive community that is resilient, yes, but also fragile.

Where are you? It is a question worth asking.

Doing this work, here, now, all of us, this is our constant, eloquent, and powerful response to the memories of September 11, 2001.