20 years ago, today, we woke up thinking it would be just another day, but 20 years ago, today, the world changed.
20 years ago, today, the world changed for almost 3,000 people murdered on planes, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for their families and communities.
20 years ago, today, the world changed for the US, the UK, the world.
20 years ago, today, our lives and our great hopes for a century or even a millennium of peace collapsed in a few hours.
Today we are marking the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a day most appropriate to reflect on change.
What is left after 20 years of our dreams we had before 9/11 and what will be? Can we restore our hopes, can we recreate, can we adjust?
20 years ago, I was not a professional Jew, but perhaps 9/11 pushed me in that direction. 20 years ago, was a day where I felt lost and shocked. 20 years ago, my world changed.
20 years ago, I left our apartment in Munich early in the morning. It was only a few days before the bookfair in Frankfurt and we had several meetings on the agenda this day to prepare for it. Chayim lived that time in Philadelphia, and we had our routine to talk usually around lunch time for some minutes. But not so that day. Because I had meetings scheduled for the whole day and Chayim knew about it, I wasn’t expecting a call from him.
At some point – I can’t remember the time – one of my colleagues who was known for making bad jokes at the wrong time – opened the door to the conference room and said, “New York is burning”. And the second thing he said “Chayim left a message at the reception that he is going home.”
Weird combination, which made only sense after we switched on the TV in the conference room. The meetings were over, and everyone went to their computers. At that time the internet had already collapsed. I tried to call Chayim to no avail. For your information, our apartment in Philadelphia that time was only one block away from the big sky-scrapers downtown Philly. With all the pictures that were broadcasted into our homes via the TV in an endless loop and the spare information available that also spoke about one plane which was heading towards Philadelphia missing, my day was over. I left the office to go home. Should Chayim try to call me, it was better to be at home.
Several hours later he called, a relief. But the hours in-between are burned into my memories and the pain is still real. And this is what I felt, 1000s of miles away.
Thankfully, no one I knew lost their life.
Nevertheless, this day still changed my life in a way I never anticipated.
That day, the way how people saw me changed.
Only a few days after 9/11, returning home from my place of work, which was literally only two blocks walk, two civil policemen stopped me in front of my door, asking for my papers. Asking them, why they stopped me, they were honest about it: I looked suspicious. I look somehow Arabic.
After 9/11 this happened often to me. The only thing that stopped them for checking my identity was wearing a kippah. Who have thought that wearing a kippah in Germany would actually save you from being racially profiled – at least in a way that you were not considered as an immediate threat.
20 years ago, everyone who was looking different was considered either a threat, a terrorist, or not. Many times, I ended up being seen as of the first category, and it wasn’t fun.
To be fair, I grew up in Germany with being considered not a “real German”, but before 9/11 it wasn’t that hurtful. Until then it was no “legally sanctioned” racism, it was only the usual day-by-day racism. 9/11 allowed the police (for a while) to check everyone who “didn’t look German. And if you complained the answer was that 9/11 changed the parameters and this is now what needs to be done, to prevent another 9/11.
And I am sure that my experiences where minor to what people who didn’t speak German and/or without a German ID document had to endure. But the fear that I – by mistake – left the house without my ID card was real. Still today, when I see police, my blood pressure goes up, just because I learned after 9/11 that I had to proof that I am not a terrorist. There could be dozens of people around me, only I and everyone else who looked like a “terrorist” had to show their papers.
I am not blind; I have seen what radicalised Islamic fighters have done to the world. I see what is happening in Afghanistan right now, I have mourned victims of terror attacks and I find it unbearable how women, men and children suffer day by day under an ideology that hates human diversity.
But I hate more that the terrorists of 9/11 succeeded in limiting our human freedom, hurting our human dignity, and destroying our hopes for a world in peace. I am upset that our society had to trade in a bit of our freedom in exchange of safety after each single terror attack. I hate that I feel traumatised by the reaction of my own society. With the twin towers some of the colours that made our world shining so brightly disappeared. The world became a bit greyer, a bit darker. I cry in the anguish of my hart because of that.
However, I mentioned that 9/11 brought me also a bit closer to my Judaism. Chayim might share with you after the service how 9/11 was for him, and how his congregation in Philadelphia came together in the days after, first to console one another, and then also to celebrate the High Holy Days in a world that seemed to fall apart.
Also in far-away Munich, the community got closer together, and the teaching of repairing the world after such a catastrophe still rings in my ears, outbalancing the human disappointments of the weeks and months after.
I understood that it is on me and everyone else around me to restore human dignity. I can mourn the many times I felt hurt and feel diminished because of political agendas or pure racism or anti-Semitism, it happened, and it will happen again. But I learned that I could comfort someone who was hurt too, I could restore hope, I could and can re-create dreams, and I could and can bring healing.
Yes, the terrorists of 9/11 accomplished to take away a hurtful amount of liberty and human dignity with their heinous acts, but they have not won. And my Judaism teaches me not to let them win. Tikkun Olam is a real thing. As long as we see in the other a human being, they cannot win, as long as we don’t treat others who don’t look, act, love, pray or whatever like us automatically as threats and evil, they cannot win. As long as we constantly remind us that we, as individuals, as any other human being are a true reflection of the divine, they cannot win.
In my Rosh Hashanah sermon, I spoke about creating spaces where people not only feel welcome, but safe too, and where they truly belong, regardless of their origin, way of Jewish observance, or whatever…
With every step we go towards the other, we bring back the colour that disappeared on 9/11. And hopefully, the world will shine in all its diversity again, soon, in our days.
9/11 changed our world, but we can and must change it too.
G’mar chatima Tovah.
This Shabbat is a time of endings and new beginnings: It is the last Shabbat of 5780, opening the gateway to Rosh HaShanah We are bidding farewell to the past, and moving forward into something new. Like the ancient Israelites we are poised to enter what is metaphorically a new land; our new buildings and a brand new year. Have you ever thought what an appropriate season this is to begin a new year?
Spring is a time for looking both forwards and backwards. As we see nature awakening, and the new flowers blossoming, and the sun shining brighter and lighter than before, we prepare for the next season as well. And so it is with our lives. In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we seek to rid ourselves of the habits, the thoughts, the actions that blemish our lives, and we enter new paths, leading us to become better people.
How can we bring more light and colour into the new year? One way is through teshuvah. Teshuvah is far more than repentance. “It is,” argues Adin Steinsaltz, “a spiritual awakening to the possibilities within us. It is not just remorse, but a profound change of one’s life, a break, a reformation. We alone of all creatures have this power to turn, to recreate ourselves anew. Teshuvah at its heart is a creative process. It is not a turning back, but rather a turning forward, a turning to a new creation. Our teshuvah allows us to turn to who we have always possibly been and indeed are meant to be, but have not yet become. We turn to the growth and possibility that is inside us, but which has lain dormant. Like the sculptor who creates a work of art from what appears to be a block of stone, we create the person we truly are but which we may have kept locked inside us, not knowing how to release it or perhaps even afraid to do so.”
This process is not always easy. We might face both an intellectual and emotional block to our teshuvah, yet, teshuvah, though sometimes painful can also be joyous. As we create our true selves, we truly become partners with God in the process of creation.
We all stand here in the doorway of a brand new year. What will we do? We have the opportunity and the potential to create both ourselves and the world anew—today, tomorrow and in this new year.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
This is an incredibly special time of the year. In a few weeks we will celebrate, separated but still together, the High Holy Days; Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, then Sukkot and Simchat Torah. With all the uncertainties that surround us these days, the High Holy Days will be very different this year. But what remains constant is the ability of Bet David to enter the High Holy Days on a path toward forgiveness, repentance, reflection, and renewal. We have worked hard and thoughtfully to ensure that these spiritual themes and prayerful experiences, as much you seek them, find their way to you.
The Torah declares:
“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Nitzavim, Dtn. 30)
On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change. We proclaim that we can fix our mistakes and mend our ways. We believe that human beings are capable of repentance and change. Change however comes with difficulty. We know that we all have a tendency to resist it. This is part of our human nature. Everyone wants to hold on to the past and their image of the past. However, when we attempt to hold on to such imaginings, we never serve the future. We find ourselves alone and comforted only by memories. Thus, change is necessary. It is required for our society. It is required for our people. It is required in our personal lives. We must regularly reinvent ourselves.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate our ability to change. We dip the apples into honey and say, “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to renew this year for us with sweetness and happiness.” The Hebrew word for renew is chadesh. We make new. We make the old new. We are never trapped in our old ways. Our lives are not predestined. Our choices are not predetermined.
Too often we feel that our lives are beyond our control. The past six months have proven that there are things that we cannot determine. Our health is not entirely in our own hands. Often, other people’s choices affect us and direct our lives in uncharted territories. Yet our choices remain in our own hands. This is what we can change. And this is what we mark on Rosh Hashanah.
For Chayim and me these High Holy Days will be a time of a huge transition, moving from Johannesburg to the UK. The beginning of 5781 will also be the end for us of six wonderful years at Bet David. It is a time to say goodbye, but also to embrace the change that will be happening. I know that Bet David is in good hands and that you will continue to go from strength to strength.
Chayim joins me in wishing all of you and your families a blessed New Year filled with love, peace, joy, health, prosperity and Yiddishkeit.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.
Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.
I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:
There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…
How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…
Still, as we read Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)
These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this moment in our world. We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future.
We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.
I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell