Studying verses in the Qur’an and Bible taught me a lot about what religion is really trying to say. I also had a very long and interesting conversation with my Rabbi, Rabbi Michael Weinberg, about what the role of religion is in everyday life. The transcript of the interview is copied below. Taking from those experiences and learning more about these sacred religious texts helped me with creating a memorial for 9/11, where Ground Zero is. I belive that openness is the opposite of oppression, so what I wanted from my design was a feeling of light and freedom. As abstract as my design is, what I was going for in it was a greenhouse type first floor, with trees and glass walls and the names of the victims on the walls and on the second floor, a dome like space with the trees pooping up from the first floor. I want this space to be a place for people to go and learn and discuss and create new relationships.
ZF: What was your first thought and reaction when you heard about 9/11? Because you’re a religious leader, you obviously had to think about your congregation.
Rabbi Weinberg: Shock, surprise, dismay, probably similar to what everybody else thought. And then I think we started to think in practical terms of what do we need to do. How do we help people cope. I have to say that our response here in Chicago was probably very different than what people needed to do in New York. I think we were affected very differently than the people who were close by, in New York or Washington, where it was much more personal. Here it was pretty distant but still significant. So I was involved right away with a couple of public interfaith.. moments. One with the clergy of Evanston, we got together in downtown Evanston, we had a press conference vigil sort of moment, and then another one with the clergy of Skokie where we got together on the village green in Skokie. Both of those events were really just us saying, “Here we are together, struggling to find meaning.”
ZF: You know, that’s interesting, was there any thought of looking into any Islamic institutions when you were doing that? I know that there aren’t that many in Chicago-
RW: So, these all happened within a day, the first one, in Evanston, was mostly ministers, because that’s who they contacted. There is no formal structured Muslim presence in Evanston. In Skokie, the interfaith community is a little broader, so for example when we have our erev (evening) Thanksgiving service, we have a Muslim representative, a Hindu, a Jain, a Sik, a Bahai, in addition to Protestants, Catholics and Jews, which is the old interfaith. But the representatives of all those other religions are usually laypeople, rather than “official” religious leaders. I don’t want to say clergy because they don’t really have people they think of as clergy. So, there’s a guy who lives in Skokie whose a Muslim, but he’s not an Imam. Those communities, they just function differently than the Christian, Catholic and Jewish communities function in terms of formal representation. They’re changing over time, for instance, I am now a participant in a Rabbi-Imam dialogue group, but the Muslim community just works differently than the Jewish community. I think they are understanding that in order to function in the United States, they need to find a way to function in public. One of the things I learned is that, in the Jewish community, in order to be a Rabbi, you have to go to school for a certain number of years, you have to be certified as it were by some official organization of some sort. If someone just opens up a storefront somewhere and calls himself a Rabbi, that’ll work for as long as he has congregants who acknowledge him, but for the most part, he doesn’t have any public legitimacy. And it’s the same thing with Priests, although there is a little bit more storefront preacher possibility. In the Muslim community, you become an Imam is the congregation says, “We want you to be our Imam.” That’s all there is. There’s no certification, so the title only means that you’re acknowledged by that community.
ZF: So it’s harder to get a wider acknowledgment in the community of Skokie or Evanston..
RW: Well it means that you don’t really think of yourself as having any kind of formal ceritification. You know, some of the people that I’ve talked to understand that to be in the United States, you have to have a more formal certification because they want the title to have meaning. Anyways, for the Niles Township Clergy forum, which I have been part of for 25 years, since I became Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, it was always Protestants, Catholics and Jews. It was 9/11 that brought out all the other people. So for that public candlelight vigil that we did on the village green, we were able to reach out to all those other communities, and ever since then, all those other communities have come to participate in our Erev Thanksgiving event.
ZF: That’s interesting, because I think a lot of times we think about 9/11 and at least I think that that is the beginning of when we began to typecast Muslim people as “terrorists.” I grew up with 9/11 in my life. I was in first grade when it happened. So I always grew up with that idea of Arabs as the “other” that we’re afraid, but it’s interesting that that had the opposite effect in a lot of ways.
RW: Yes, but Skokie is also an unusual community. It’s an extremely diverse community, there’s something like 100 languages spoken at Niles North, and the leadership of Skokie decided a long time ago to embrace that diversity. I think more even than Evanston. Evanston is certainly an integrated community, but in Evanston, integrated means blacks and whites. But it’s only partially integrated, as you know from Evanston Highschool. But in Skokie, the 9/11 event, the result was to enhance the embracing of diversity. At least publicly. What people think in their homes, I don’t know. I can only speak about the Jewish community. I think in the Jewish community, there are still pockets of distrust of Arabs, distrust of Muslims, but I don’t think that’s connected to 9/11 as much as its connected to Israel. Support of Israel and therefore fear of the “other”.
ZF: And what ideas did you want to convey to the congregation after 9/11?
RW: Yeah, so its interesting, because 9/11 happened just a few days before Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year] so I had to talk about it. Now that’s a few years ago, so if you ask me to remember what did I say, I’m not sure that I could, but I think the basic notion that I wanted to help people deal with was when everything seems like its coming apart and all of our assumptions seem like their… that there are some things that are continuous and there are values that are important to hold onto, even when terrible things happen. We have each other, we are together as a community, and those things shouldn’t be abandoned just because somebody bad did a bad thing. And I think that in subsequent years, I spoke out pretty strongly, there was a whole move to prevent this group from creating a Mosk because it was a few blocks away from ground zero and it seemed that was an ill conceived movement to try and prevent that. So I spoke out against that. I think that, in retrospect, certainly the Jewish community has suffered over the years from people stereotyping Jews and from people assuming that all Jewish people are the same, and if one Jewish person does something, all Jewish people think that, then everybody’s guilty. And if we suffered from that, we ought not assume that all Muslims are the same. At the same time, in retrospect, I think the American Muslim community suffered from not being well organized politically, and I think they now understand this, not having some kind of a structure whereby moderate Muslims could speak publicly, and say, “We’re loyal Americans, we’re Muslims and we don’t think this an okay way for people to express themselves.”
ZF: It was hard because they didn’t have anyone who could do that because all we were seeing was this one extremist sect.
RW: Yes, so where are the moderate voices in Islam, speaking out to say this is not the right way. And I think a lot of people felt that, depending on where they are, for instance some of the moderate voices of Islam for example in the Arab world rather than in American have to worry about being assassinated if they speak out. That’s real. Here I don’t know if that’s the same. The Muslims that I know, think that 9/11 was a horrific thing to do, but I want them to say so publicly is some way. Or other acts of violence, I want them to denounce that in some way and I don’t think they know how.
ZF: I think that in any religion, and this is applicable to Christianity, to Judaism, to Hinduism, it all depends on how the individual interprets it. You look at Judaism, and I don’t look at Judaism as preaching violence, but Rabin was killed by an Orthodox Jew because that’s how he interpreted his religion. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu. It doesn’t matter what the religion is, it matters who the people are because you are always going to get people who interpret violence, and that is the fault of the individual not the religion itself. And that can be the problem because it can sometimes result in an entire group of people being typecast as a certain thing even if it is untrue. As a religious leader, what do you think your role is in national and international crises? Because you do have people who listen to what you say. So what do you think your place is in those situations?
RW: I don’t pretend to be a political scientist, but I do think that the members of the congregation look to me to help them understand and find meaning in events that take place. Sometime I can do that and sometimes I can’t. And I don’t presume to be a political commentator. But I do try to bring teachings of Judaism to bear in events that take place in our lives. Ultimately, what I want to teach is that Judaism has something to say about our everyday lives, and what is going on in the world, and not just “religion”.
ZF: What do you think 9/11 did to America as a whole? What do you think its affects were later?
RW: Well, I wish that the affect that it had here in Skokie would have been more widespread, and again I am not a professor or a political scientist, but my own personal opinion is that the affects were mostly negative. I’m not sure that 9/11 accomplished what the perpetrators of 9/11 wanted to accomplish. Its not really clear to me what they wanted other than to cause chaos. If they wanted to cause chaos, if they wanted to show the United States that its not as strong as it thinks it is, that its vulnerable to terrorist attacks, well, that’s no surprise. They certainly demonstrated that, but I think any of us would have believed it without the demonstration. I think that in many circles, the events of 9/11 led to lots of Muslim bashing and led to more nurturing of the more racist and bigoted tendencies in many people. In many circles it made it more socially acceptable for them to articulate those things out loud. In terms of the administrations’ response, my own personal sense is that the Bush administration was looking for a reason to invade Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein and this gave them the perfect opportunity. Even though there was no real connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11 but the Bush Administration used this as an excuse and very soon after there was this invasion of Iraq. It was like, they had the plans on the table and this was just the motivation.
ZF: My last question is, how can we honor those who died in the 9/11 attacks? Right now they have started to work on Ground Zero, and they have a really nice memorial set up, but how to you think we can honor people who died?
RW: So, in general, there are sort of different levels of this. For example, their families will honor their memories. The vast majority of people who died in 9/11 were victims, not heroes. Its important that we honor their memory but don’t imagine that they gave their lives for their country. It wasn’t for the most part heroism involved. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time I think that if they had been given the choice, they wouldn’t have been there. So I think its appropriate to have some sort of memorial and dayeinu [enough]. Again, I’m pretty far away from this, I might have a different opinion if I was in New York. So the people in New York City have created some kind of memorial and I’m sure there is some kind of plaque that says something and I think that’s enough. We did a special service here on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, mostly I thought it was important for us to do that for the kids. Like you, who were in first grade when it happened, and they didn’t really have an understanding of it. Just like we have commemorations of other moments in history. On sort of anniversaries, there are moments when things happen, either to our country or to our people that we think are worthy of commemoration, even though they are not necessarily like Purim [a holiday celebrated every year to commemorate the Jewish escape of being slaughtered in Persia]. We are also commemorating a similar event but it became an ongoing holiday forever. Whereas some of these holidays will not be ongoing holidays forever.
ZF: But they are still important to remember.
RW: Right. So people will remember for a while, and at some point it may not be as significant. There are other days in the days in the history of our country that were important days, that have since fallen into not such strong observance. Even those we see now, things like Memorial Day and veterans day are really important to veterans, but not as much to other people. You and I think of Memorial day as a picnic day, but at the time memorial day was created, it was a different kind of thing.