September 11, 2010: A Time for Turning

09/10/2010 09:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nancy Fuchs Kreimer Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

This post was co-written with Hussein Rashid.

September 11. The date, the words are still so evocative. Hate, anger, fear, sorrow, loss. Nine years after the event, emotions can still be as intense as they were in 2001. For some Americans, September 11 is the anniversary of their loved one's death. Along with the annual memorials, this year the day will also include public demonstrations both in support of and in opposition to Park51, misnamed the "Ground Zero Mosque."

Both of us will be marking that day as part of our holy season. For Jews, the 11th is Shabbat Shuva, literally the Sabbath of turning, or repentance, wedged between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. For Muslims, it is Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of fasting during the month of Ramadan, the month when Muslims are spiritually reborn. Each year, we see this time, each in our own way, as one of deep inner work whose result, God willing, is the making of new commitments.

This year, it feels important that our religious soul-searching include addressing what is going on in the public square, the larger issues that the controversy about Park51 highlights. Our country's pluralistic ideals often are at odds with the messier reality on the ground. The volume and intensity of the debate around this particular proposal has felt overwhelming at times, the escalation of hate speech frightening. At the same time, there has been a reaching out across boundaries and a growing recognition by many fair-minded Americans that we all have a lot of work to do to help our society live up to its best self.

Whatever gets decided regarding the proposed Islamic community center, the anniversary of the attacks will continue to be a challenging one. We believe that our religions themselves offer us a vehicle to bring clarity and purpose to our observance of September 11. Last year President Obama instituted a National Day of Service and Remembrance to honor the date of September 11. For us, the greatest service we can offer is addressing our ignorance about the religions of others. The rawness of the day will take longer to fade if we do not know how to talk about it with one another, if we do not, in fact, know one another to talk at all. Can we use this September 11 to ask ourselves and our communities what we do not know about each other and how we might learn more?

At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, our course on Islam includes classroom learning and the opportunity to partner with a Muslim graduate student to visit a mosque, study and teach together. Jewish students are surprised to find the complex and diverse reality of their own community mirrored in the Muslims of America. Similarly, Muslims with whom we have worked have been fascinated to learn of the varieties of Judaism. Both Jews and Muslims appreciate the insights they gain from sharing their experiences as a religious minority. One thing becomes very clear: we cannot rely on the popular media to understand who the "other " is. The reality is more complicated, and much more rewarding.

A group of Jewish interfaith educators has encouraged rabbis to use September 11 and the period surrounding it to help their communities reflect on their own fears and prejudices, on ways to learn more about Islam and on the role they might play in creating a more just and inclusive society. Resources to help are posted at Muslim Americans increasingly are engaging in multifaith learning and encounters. They understand in a visceral way that for Muslims, "Abrahamic traditions" is more than a multi-cultural buzzword. It is the definition of what means to be Muslim, because Muslims draw on the texts, literature, and law of Jews.

It is eye-opening to follow some of the lively conversations at Huffington Post Religion, Religion Dispatches, or On Faith at The Washington Post. Another great resource is the growing archive of Krista Tippett's radio show Speaking of Faith.

It is stories, above all, that help us to connect. The best stories, of course, are those we hear from the people themselves. There are many ways to seek out those encounters, from inviting a neighbor you don't know over for tea, to joining an interfaith women's book group, to partnering with a synagogue or mosque to plan a meal, exchange visits and prayers, and arrange for your youth to engage in service together. You can even call on people like us, academics at your local college or university. Many of us enjoy addressing groups about the faith traditions we know best.

As we approach September 11, the noise and heat level is likely to continue to rise, particularly as the debate over Park51 unfolds. Our hope is that amidst the memorials and the demonstrations, people might also take some time to reflect on how our country's religious diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity. September 11 could be a day of spiritual reorientation, a part of the call to service and remembrance, a day of turning toward knowledge and understanding. We invite you to share in the comments below what you are doing in your community.


Hussein Rashid is a visiting professor of Religion at Hofstra University. He teaches at Park Avenue Christian Church's Quest Center for Spiritual Inquiry. As an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches he is also a frequent writer and commentator on religion in America. You can find out more about his work on his website.

Nancy Kreimer directs the department of Multifaith Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation. She edits the blog