On 9/11, Tanenbaum's staff was required to report to the office by 8:30 a.m., an hour earlier than usual. At that time, our offices were located in the Empire State Building and directly overlooked the World Trade Center. No sooner had we all assembled than we saw a plane fly into the twin towers. We all assumed that this was a terrible accident, and were still looking out the window 15 minutes later when we saw a second plane approach from New Jersey, make a turn and plow into the second tower. Now we knew this was no accident. Assuming the iconic Empire State Building would be the next target, we evacuated the building and went to a coffee shop a few blocks away to process what we had just witnessed.
We separated after an hour or so. As I walked up Fifth Avenue, I kept turning back to look at the World Trade Center, whose towers were engulfed in smoke. At one point, when I turned, the towers disintegrated before my eyes.
As I neared home, I had an overpowering urge to stop at my synagogue. I went to the rabbi's study and, with one or two other people there, sat in numb silence. I couldn't help but notice how calm everything seemed on the Upper East Side. It was hard to believe that two such disparate realities could exist in on the same small island.
As many of us remember, there was a powerful sense of national unity that emerged from the attacks. Sadly, that collapsed all too quickly. The drumbeat of Islamophobia became more and more insistent, as did blame for the Jews and Israel for being the cause of extremist hatred against the U.S. At Tanenbaum, we saw the effects: Students mocked for wearing hijabs. Escalating employment discrimination complaints from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim). People on the street openly taunted, even attacked.
Over the ensuing 10 years, Tanenbaum has continued to develop real world tools to build bridges and counter the post-9/11 tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. We've taken on the furor over the Park51 Cultural Center in lower Manhattan (or, for that matter, the protests against mosque building projects across the country, from New Jersey to Tennessee to California) by providing guidelines for civil conversation around controversial issues. And in anticipation of more antagonism as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Tanenbaum has helped found Prepare New York, a unique coalition of interfaith organizations. Tanenbaum's contributions to this effort are education materials (i.e., guidelines, customized questions and fact sheets) that can be used to inform conversations we've never had about 9/11. Using the materials, people can discuss many sensitive issues of religious pluralism and hold what Prepare New York calls "CoffeeHour Conversations." Hundreds are already completed or planned, both in New York and around the country.
These conversations give me hope. In one dialogue that involved a rabbi teaching and a mixed audience, which included some young Muslim women, the women were struck by the similarity of traditions: prayer and fasting, but also mourning. Many other conversations have included 9/11 families, survivors and first responders, and we've been gratified to see their willingness to reach across boundaries of religious and cultural differences to communicate deeply and authentically with people of traditions different than their own. The CoffeeHour Conversations are building bridges that have long been necessary.
And these bridges extend to less visible communities as well. Tanenbaum has reached out on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to support the rebuilding of their church, the only house of worship that was actually destroyed in the attacks of 9/11.
If we can continue building these bridges, if the voices of pluralism can continue to make themselves heard above the din of the frightened and the hateful, I will consider us well on the way to building the inclusive society to which we all aspire.
This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.
Follow Georgette Bennett, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TanenbaumCenter