How to Commemorate 9/11

Sunday, Sept. 11, marks the fourth anniversary of the deadliest attack on American soil, a day that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, changed a cityscape forever, and set in motion a series of events – including the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – that still grip the nation.

It also happens to be the first Sunday after Labor Day, and just three weeks before the Jewish New Year, when more moderate temperatures signify prime time for synagogue open houses, rummage sales, Hebrew-school cook-outs and other communal events.

As 2001 inches farther into the past, Jewish groups, as well as Americans of all backgrounds, are facing the dilemma of how best to handle the infamous date of "9/11." Whether it's a day of solace or business as usual remains open to interpretation.

"It's an ongoing question in the Jewish community; we're still figuring it out," said Lori Lefkovitz, who heads Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which composed a Hebrew prayer to mark the tragedy.

Lefkovitz faced the issue herself. She sits on the board of directors of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, which is holding its first meeting of the school year on Sept. 11, and will observe a moment of silence to commemorate the lives lost.

Her husband, Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Germantown Jewish Centre, is active in the Philadelphia branch of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, a group that originally had scheduled its annual picnic for this Sunday, but then decided to postpone the gathering.

"A working meeting seems to be okay. But a picnic seems to be less tasteful," said Lefkovitz.

Still, for some Jewish groups, scheduling an event on Sept. 11 was deemed appropriate as long as there was also some recognition of the day's somberness.

The Cherry Hill Mikvah Association, for one, is holding an afternoon mini-mall. Organizer Cheryl Broth said that part of the proceeds will be donated to a fund set up in the name of a World Trade Center victim, although they had not yet selected a specific victim's name.

"I think you hear the date, and it just strikes a chord and brings you back to where you were watching the news and thought, 'Oh my God, where's my child?' " said Broth. "I feel very bad that I had to choose this date, but it was the best date possible. Our mikvah is about 30 years old; it really needs to be fixed. If you don't keep going, life doesn't move on."

A Day to Live in Infamy
Rabbi Alan Iser of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn said his synagogue also tried to reach a balance. On the one hand, it's going ahead with the start of Hebrew school and the annual barbecue; on the other, he will conduct a memorial service to be held as part of the regular morning minyan, then conduct a class focusing on what Judaism teaches regarding martyrdom and violence in the name of God.

The rabbi added that he hopes the anniversary "will make people pause and reflect. I think it will be sad if what happened to Dec. 7 happens to Sept. 11. But only time will tell."

Iser is, of course, referring to Dec. 7, 1941, the date the Japanese attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, claiming the lives of more than 2,400 American servicepeople. For the majority of Americans, born after or too young to remember the events, Dec. 7, at best, represents an abstract historical date, and at worst, a day indistinguishable from the rest.

In fact, the way that some Americans tend to cope with commemoration dates by celebrating them as vacation days – such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Presidents Day – influenced Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation's decision not to shut down for the day.

"If you don't have school that day, then all it becomes is a day you don't have school," said Hilary Leboff, the Newtown synagogue's executive director. "Our policy is to just treat it as any other day. Everybody says you don't want [the terrorists] to think they have won. Once you stop living your life normally, they have won."

Perhaps the ultimate barometer to gauge whether the date has been normalized is whether or not couples are willing to be wed on Sept. 11 – and have that as their anniversary date. Last year, when Sept. 11 fell on a Saturday, a couple did tie the knot at the Ritz-Carlton. This year, there are no Sunday wedding plans – odd for a prime weekend in early fall – though three wedding brunches are on the docket.

Neither are any Sept. 11 weddings scheduled at the Radisson Plaza Warwick Hotel or the Four Seasons, but Judith Dumrauf, regional director of hotel marketing for the Four Seasons, doesn't think that necessarily means couples refuse to marry on that date. "Saturday is still the prime night for a wedding," she said, as it was last year.

Carol and Sam Finkelstein are among those fated to mark a happy occasion on the same date as one of the nation's greatest calamities. For the Edgemont couple, Sunday will be more about celebrating their granddaughter's fourth birthday than about dwelling over what happened on the day she was born.

"We are very happy because of her birthday," said 64-year-old Carol Finkelstein, who on Sunday will be in North Carolina for her granddaughter Kyra's party. "It's unfortunate her birthday will always be remembered for what happened. For me, every year it gets a little easier, but for people who lost loved ones, the day will always be difficult."

But it would be a mistake to believe that only those most directly affected by the terrorist attacks have trouble coping with the anniversary, according to Center City psychologist Joanne Perilstein, who explained that psychologists often treat something simply known as an "Anniversary Reaction."

"This happens whenever people have a serious emotional loss," said Perilstein, who also serves as the president of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, Heart of the City. "There may be a natural upwelling of emotion. With Sept. 11, there is a national awareness, rather than an individual awareness."

The fourth anniversary may also be made more difficult because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"As Americans, we like to feel that we are invulnerable," she said. "Sept. 11 really blew us away. And now, we have this business in Louisiana, where a whole city has been ruined. Our distorted belief that we are invulnerable has really taken a knock."



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