When extremists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, it was, at the heart of it, an attack on our ideals and on our founding principles as a nation — on democracy, freedom, pluralism. It was an attack on our core belief that all perspectives have a place and a voice — and we can talk to one another and work out political and social differences.
It was a cry of rage and desperation that no one heard until it was too late. It shattered lives and trust. It shattered buildings, but more insidiously shattered the ground on which our society is built. For the last 10 years, this country has not only had to rebuild the "twin towers"; we have also had to rebuild trust and understanding, faith and commitment to our shared ideals and purposes.
It is easy to imagine how to build new buildings, but it is not as easy to imagine how to rebuild the ground on which our institutions are built. As the smoke lifted, it became increasingly clear that "not knowing one another" is risky business.
I learned this one day when I worked at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia. We were visited by a pair of Catholic and Protestant leaders from Northern Ireland. I still remember their pained looks and desperate pleas to learn our "secrets" of interfaith dialogue.
I learned this from a speech by Dennis Ross, who served under multiple administrations negotiating peace in the Middle East. He attributed the failed attempts at peace to decades of ignoring the need to build relationships among Palestinians and Israelis.
Sept. 11 was a tragic wake-up call for Americans. It certainly was for me. On that Tuesday, around noontime, I left my briefcase and my hope at the office. The Jewish Community Services building where I worked had been evacuated; the terror and tears on the faces of people of all racial and religious backgrounds who gathered for a moment of silence in the auditorium hours before were still haunting me.
I left the landlocked city on foot. Trains had stopped running, and I walked home to Bala Cynwyd up the West River Drive. The sky was blue, the temperature glorious, and I was in complete despair.
I felt like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, walking, stopping, crying out to God, "OK, I give up! All the years working together on social issues? Dialogue? Friendship across all faiths? The skeptics were right. What good is it if some extremist can destroy it all in an instant? I give up!" This had been my life's work and now I, like so many others that day, sank into despair.
Days passed and I still could not bring myself to call anyone in my dialogue circles. The yamim noraim, the period of the High Holidays, were beginning that week, and I felt numb. Then the phone rang as I was walking out the door for Erev Rosh Hashanah services. Rehana from our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, said, "I called to wish you a Happy New Year." In an instant, the cloud lifted and my heart opened. I was flooded with years of memories — breakthrough moments in dialogue, shared lifecycle events and friendship. I felt understood, connected. Tears filled my eyes and I realized, "I was back."
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of England, offers a new paradigm to replace the "risky business" of assimilation and identity politics. He argues that we should see society as "the home we build together, bringing the distinctive gifts of different groups to the common good."
In the months following Sept. 11, leaders across our region began to imagine a new "building project." We imagined the power of visionary people from diverse faith communities coming together, defiantly rejecting the forces of fear that would divide us, in favor of creating institutions dedicated to building the kind of world we want to live in — at least in our corner of the earth.
On Sunday, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Rabbi David Straus, Imam Anwar Muhaimin and Bishop Claire Burkat — representing the Religious Leaders Council and Interfaith Center — stood together with David Eisner, president of the Constitution Center, and Mayor Michael Nutter on Independence Mall and declared their commitment to continue to work, with courage and hope, to help "We the People" build a more perfect union. Join us in this building project.
Abby Stamelman Hocky, executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, was associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2001.