9/11, Collective Memory, and Yom Kippur

9 Tishrei 5774 
13 September 2013 

This past Wednesday we commemorated the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At 8:46 am, the time when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the Gann community stood for a moment of silence along with the rest of the country. A few minutes later, students, faculty, and staff joined together in the Beit Midrash for a ceremony where one of our teachers read a minute-by-minute account of how the events unfolded that morning. Slowly and deliberately, with incredible emotion in his voice, the teacher walked us through the history of that horrific day. No embellishments. No explanation. No commentary. Just the facts of what happened that tragic morning. The silence in the room was stunning.  

After this almost ritualistic recitation-narrative, four faculty members shared their personal stories of where they were on 9/11 and how they remembered that day. One of the faculty members was a high school freshman at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, which made his account particularly poignant as I observed our students watching and listening intently to him and their other teachers. We concluded the ceremony with the singing of the National Anthem, and then the students silently proceeded to their advisor groups to process the ceremony and the day. 

Later that afternoon during our weekly faculty meeting, an extraordinary conversation occurred among our faculty that brought even greater meaning to the experience we shared that morning. One teacher posed two questions: “What do our students, most of whom barely remember 9/11, need from a commemoration like this? Which elements of the ceremony resonated most with them and why?” Other faculty members began sharing and processing their advisees’ responses and experiences, trying, as adults, to uncover the meaning that this day and our approach to it had for our students. As is often the case, this generated more questions. What are the pedagogical assumptions behind a ceremony like this? How can we honor and do justice to the day and to all those who were deeply and personally affected by these tragic events in ways that are educationally and emotionally appropriate and impactful for a generation that was not there and does not remember?  

As I listened to the reflectiveness, sensitivity, sophistication, and empathy with which our faculty conversed, I was in awe of our educators who take so seriously their sacred charge. We rigorously engage the minds of our students, yes. And we strive to touch their hearts, to guide them as they develop into thinking, feeling, responsible Jews and human beings.   

Beneath our faculty’s discussion was also an age-old Jewish question that began in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) that we will conclude next week on Simchat Torah. What does it mean to educate a generation about a history that they did not live and did not experience as their story? What does it mean to shape a people’s collective memory in ways that invite individuals into a covenantal relationship—a sense of connection and responsibility to a shared past and shared future—with their community and their nation? As we learned from our 9/11 ceremony, these questions that have animated Jewish parents and educators for thousands of years apply to the next generation of Americans and the future of this great country, as well.   

Communal prayer, especially on the high holidays, is one of the ways our rabbis addressed these questions. Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, many of us will spend  hours in synagogue, travelling through a tour-de-force of liturgy that ranges from private supplications to joyous song to the reenactment of the Avodah (the Priestly sacrifices) to the recitation of martyrology recalling the tragedies that have befallen our people. Through these powerful literary, theological, and musical genres, the Yom Kippur prayers invite us to enter our people’s collective consciousness and to stand together in covenantal relationship with our community.   

I wish all of us an easy fast and a meaningful and inspiring Yom Kippur.  

G’mar Chatima Tova,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  

 

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