Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Acting out of crisis, doing what is right
“I long for September 12.”
These words were spoken in a recent PBS News interview with Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward was on Flight 93 on September 11. That flight had been hijacked and redirected to Washington D.C. until a group of 40 passengers and crew took control and crashed the plane in Pennsylvania.
Felt reflected on the events that took place at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as on Flight 93. In just 35 minutes these heroes got information from the ground learning that their flight was also an intended “missile” heading to a target, likely the U.S. Capitol building. He told how these strangers worked together to come up with a plan and then implement it. They voted, prayed together, and then acted. While their effort resulted in the crash in rural Pennsylvania, their sacrifice and courage saved many other lives and averted an even greater tragedy that fateful day.
As the interview continued, the PBS reporter and Felt talked about how the very next day America came together, even as did the passengers and crew the previous day. With sadness, they both expressed the loss of togetherness and common purpose that marked the days following 9/11. Gordon Felt acknowledged that we are much more divided today as he responded, “I long for September 12. It is possible. We have it in us. We have demonstrated that we are able to function together, respectfully, communicate, problem-solve. We have strayed a long way from where we were that day. We have to work diligently to get back on track as a nation so that we can once again be one people working to do good, working to do what’s right.”
In a similar reflection, former President George Bush spoke this past Saturday, September 11, at a special commemoration at the Flight 93 Memorial.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” Bush said. “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
Can we recover that spirit of 20 years ago and be united again as we face the current attacks from an invisible enemy in the form of the COVID virus?
On Wednesday evening this week, our Jewish neighbors will begin the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time of reflection, fasting, prayer, and asking forgiveness. It is based on the unpopular idea today that people can change.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, the Senior Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, also looked to those days of unity and wrote, “As much as September 11, 2001 is etched into my memory, September 12, 13, 14 are equally impressed upon my mind. Who can forget the pride we felt in being Americans?” He continued, “In the days and weeks following 9/11, civility and graciousness were at an all-time high. … Neighbors went out of their way for one another; government agencies and their employees were deeply appreciated by those who needed their services; members of our military, policemen, firemen, and first responders were revered. The sense of unity among the more than 250 million Americans was extraordinary.”
Rabbi Goldberg looked for a similar response to the crisis of today, but instead it has become a “weapon to judge, criticize, condemn and even to hate. Sadly, this pandemic has driven people, even families apart. … Rather than feel a sense of unity and togetherness, there is polarization, divisiveness, and discord.”
Yes, we are divided, but it need not continue that way. Can we learn from the tragedy of 9/11 as we face today’s threat? The latest statistics on the delta variant of COVID show that in just one week over 10,000 have died in the United States. That’s more than three times the death toll of 9/11, as totals now exceed 650,000 in America and over four and a half million worldwide.
Just as those brave ordinary citizens came together to make a life sacrifice to save the lives of others, let us make the needed minor sacrifices of acting to save lives in our current attack.
Let us join our Jewish neighbors and friends during this time of repentance to seek forgiveness for the division in our land and change our ways.
It is a matter, found in all of our religious teachings, of caring for our neighbor, loving the stranger, and just doing what is right.