Our Better Angels was a highly successful interreligious program presented by The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Union Theological Seminary (UTS) at historic St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, Wall Street, adjacent to the World Trade Center site. Devoted to changing the tenor of public conversation about the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Our Better Angels featured Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders discussing their respective tradition's resources for dealing with trauma, mourning, and healing, followed by a meditative musical offering by world-class musicians.
As a direct result of the Our Better Angels program, JTS professor and director of JTS's Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies (LFI), Rabbi Burton Visotzky, was invited to gather an interreligious group for a special tour of the 9/11 Memorial given by its architect, Michael Arad, an Israeli-American New Yorker whose own memories of September 11, 2001, and the spontaneous gathering of people in Washington Square Park that night informed his vision of the memorial.
Rabbi Visotzky reports below on the experience he shared with this diverse group of Americans: Rev. Dr. Serene Jones (Protestant), Valarie Kaur, Esq. (Sikh), Sharat Raju (Hindu American), Dr. Sarah Sayeed (Muslim), and Fran Snyder (Jewish), currently a JTS doctoral candidate; see her bio on the bottom of this page).
"The 9/11 Memorial is exceptional, and captures the immensity and the power of the event it commemorates. Michael Arad was the perfect guide to his own architectural work—we were all touched by the depth of compassion Michael and his team showed in their remarkable care over grouping the names on the memorial.
"Our group included Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu Americans—and we are bound together by our love for this country and the diversity it represents.
"Michael Arad told us of his years of dedication to his vision, his eventual entry into the architectural competition for the Memorial, and his seeing it through, now, to completion. I was deeply moved by the incredible compassion his team showed to the victims, their families and friends, in that the Memorial team spent a year consulting with the families and designated next-of-kin to determine how names should be grouped so that when loved ones visit the site, they will find their departed friends and family listed nearby one another—memorialized in metal much as they lived their lives together when still among us.
"This week of Tish'ah Be'Av (the Ninth Day of Av), when Jews commemorate the destructions of the First and Second Temples, the flowing water at the site brought to mind those verses we recite from the book of Lamentations (2:18–19): 'O wall of Fair Zion, shed tears like a torrent day and night . . . pour out your heart like water in the Presence of the Lord.' Yet as my friend Dr. Sarah Sayeed gently reminded me, the flowing waters are also symbolic of life and healing.
"In fact, the waters disappear into a void. The entire eight-acre site evokes the absence of the towers, what is not there: not just the buildings felled by demons, but the precious lives cut short by terror. Still, as we stood there in a grand array of American diversity, I also felt calmed by the sound of rushing water, hopeful as the buildings rose around us once more."
As we observe Tish'ah Be'Av and prepare for September 11, 2011, and the opening of the 9/11 Memorial, JTS and LFI have made available interreligious spiritual teachings and cultural treasures at Our Better Angels: Resources for the Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. Multiple quick-loading videos of the discussions and the accompanying world-class musical performances can be watched online, and the programs from each evening and the texts that were taught are available to download.