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.