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10 Years Later, We Must Do Better

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Ten years ago, on Sept. 11, I woke up in New York City. There was not a cloud in that perfect blue sky that September morning. It felt as if the day held only the promise of what was good and possible. I was there for the first of what has turned out to be scores of trips these past 10 years that involves my work the Middle East. This year on Sept. 11, however, I will find myself in Boston as a continued response to the events of that morning.

I had just returned from a year in Israel teaching at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to open the Friends of Arava Institute's first office in the United States. The previous year I had left the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vt., where I had served for 10 years as its first rabbi in a 70-year history. It was not an easy move, but the mission of the Arava Institute spoke to so many of my passions.

The Institute, located on Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border, is the premier environmental teaching and research institution in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region's environmental challenges. In our academic department, two-thirds of our student body is made up of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, while one-third come from outside of Middle East and the majority come from the United States.

I got on the subway at around 8:30 a.m. to head downtown. After a short while we were told there was an "emergency situation at the World Trade Center." We could hear sirens above. I got off the train a few blocks north of the WTC. When I got to the top of the steps I turned around and froze. I will never forget the sight of those two wounded buildings, slowly dying as they continued to smoke and burn. There was no memory file, no other experience, no other previous sensory sight to latch on to. It was like learning a completely foreign language for the first time. There was nothing to relate it to.

There was that deep groan from Tower Two as it tilted slightly and then fell in on itself. It was grotesque to see its outer skeleton stand for a few seconds and then follow the rest down in a roar and rumble of thunder and a freight train. To see something that large, that strong, that permanent come tumbling down shook the core of my being. I ran with the crowds as the volcanic-like cloud of the pulverized building came rolling toward us. There was no time for faith at that moment. I felt as though there was nothing left in this world that I, that we, could count on with that assurance that it would be there when we needed it.

For days after, I was haunted by the fact that as a clergyperson I had not turned back to help immediately after the towers had fallen. I was, however, able to return two weeks later on Yom Kippur to help the Red Cross. I was the only rabbi on duty with them that day working with the families of 9/11 as well as the first responders. I led a Yizkor (memorial) service for families that day at ground zero.

The human spirit can be resilient and respond to chaos and hate with an affirmation of life and good will. Understanding even more after the events of that morning the importance to build bridges between the United States and the Middle East, I have continued these past 10 years to promote the Arava Institute on college campuses in the United States. Our students need to have the opportunity to live with and study with students in the Middle East so they can gain a better understanding of that area of the world we so desperately need. So this Sunday, Sept. 11, I will attend the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of the Arava Institute in Boston, where we recently opened our new North American office, as we discuss among a number of issues, how we can get more students to study on our Middle East campus on Kibbutz Ketura.

In many ways the world has changed in 10 years, but in many ways it has not. We simply do not understand the Middle East as well as we should. A few years ago, the U.S. Department of State still had only 10 employees out of 34,000 rated fluent in Arabic, and there were only 57 college students majoring in Arabic in the United States. We have to do better.

This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.

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