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Tragedy’s Challenge

Rabbis strive for inspiring words after a year of terror and tumult.

by Joe Berkofsky

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Typically an outspoken political activist, Rabbi Avi Weiss struggles for the right words when it comes to talking about Ground Zero.

"I can't go down to that place anymore," said Weiss, the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute in the Bronx, N.Y.

On that fateful Sept. 11, the rabbi walked many blocks into the suffocating dust cloud arising from the collapsed World Trade Center, hoping he could help. His actions were "insignificant," he said, compared to firefighters, police and rescue workers, who turned a place of evil into "a congregation of holy souls."

But one year later, he sees a "rush of politicians and others to be at that spot," and though he understands the need to see it, he won't go.

Instead, Weiss will mark the anniversary of the attacks, as well as High Holiday services, by asking his congregation for a period of "nonverbal communication" like the moment of silence that brings Israel to a halt on Memorial and Holocaust Remembrance days. They'll also recite Psalms, read names and stories of victims, and talk about trust -- "not only in each other, but finding it in your soul to trust in God."

Weiss is hardly alone in his struggle to find a way to talk about Sept. 11. Most rabbis plan to use the High Holidays to try to tackle what many say has been one of the most traumatic years in recent history.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles said he is still unsure how he will deal with the subject. "It's indecent to ignore it, but it's not the totality of what we face or what the holidays are all about," he said, adding, however, "There's a Jewish tradition of ritualizing and textualizing great events -- how do you make it not of the moment, but a long-term event that affects our lives?"

One effort at finding such meaning is the recently published anthology "Living Words IV: A Spiritual Source Book for an Age of Terror," published by Sh'ma, a Jewish journal. In past years, the annual anthology served as a collection of High Holiday writings, but this past year editor Susan Berrin, who sees "Sept. 11, 5762, as a moment in Jewish history," said many of the pieces she gathered concern the attacks. So far this latest edition has sold 1,700 copies -- triple the usual number, she said.

In coming to terms with this past year, rabbis are getting other help, as well, from their movement's umbrella organizations. The Orthodox Union (OU), for example, is posting a video message from Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the group's executive vice president, which reflects on what he calls "our fragility, our vulnerability, and the nature of good and evil." The OU is also sending out a Hebrew poem about tragedy by Moshe Sokolow, a Yeshiva University professor, which rabbis can incorporate into services.

Similarly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism also e-mailed to its members a package titled "Project Zachor," which includes readings from specific Psalms, the "Mi Shebeirach," or prayer for recovery, for the survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks and the families of victims, and such suggestions as lighting a yahrzeit candle.

But most leaders agree that it is hard to craft a message this year.

"There are no easy answers," said Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). "In a 20- to 25-minute sermon, we're not going to solve these problems."

Like the other congregational groups, the UAHC has posted suggested liturgy for its member synagogues on its Web site, and officials like Yoffie have discussed Sept. 11 with member rabbis in national conference calls.

Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom synagogue in suburban Chicago, who is also president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said events of the past year have instilled a deep new fear in the community, a sense of loss of control.

Immediately after Sept. 11, Dreyfus said that like many, she recalls feeling that now Americans know how Israelis feel every day. Israelis still talk about a "myth of security" in which people define their own safety rules to deal with suicide bombers. "Ultimately, we're only human, and we don't have control over much in our lives, but we have to think about what we do control."

For Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, that fear takes shape almost every time he drives past an airport on his way to work in Los Angeles. "I see small planes landing about two miles from my house, and if it looks like they're banking too steeply over the San Fernando Valley, my heart skips a beat." So one way Diamond will deal with that fear is the message he'll bring to his congregants at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge over the holidays.

"Israelis kiss their kids goodbye in the morning and wonder if they'll be reunited at dinnertime. And on Sept. 11, a whole bunch of people went off to work and never came home again," he said -- we should never, ever take them for granted. We don't know how long we're going to be here."

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