There are certain days you will always remember exactly where you were when the news broke. I wasn’t alive yet,  but I have heard for those present the death of FDR on April  12, 1945 was one of those days.  For me, the first truly memorable historic day was November 22, 1963. I was in third grade and had received permission to go to the bathroom. A kindly janitor told me to return to my classroom. My teacher was ashen and could barely speak. A few days later, my parents took me to Washington to the president’s funeral. I watched President Kennedy’s casket roll by.

We have all had these moments. They define and punctuate our lives. But none was more defining and impactful in recent years than Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It was around 9 a.m. I was home watching the morning news on TV. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp morning.  “A perfect morning,” I remember thinking to myself.

Then, the first news flash came on the screen. I dismissed the first attack as a weird tragedy. New York has skyscrapers. Lots of them! A plane must have veered off course. But then a second attack, a third, and a fourth. The United States was clearly under attack by an unknown enemy. I called my oldest son, who like me, is a news junky. He agreed it was the real deal and we were under attack. We had no idea what to do and were waiting to hear an announcement from our government.

War, someone once said, “ is time in fast motion.” We weren’t exactly at war, at least not yet, but it felt like it, and in time we would go to war over 9/11, an episode still tragically playing itself out in front of our eyes and literally at the Philadelphia International Airport as pro-American Afghans arrive in our area on their way to Fort Dix and other military locations.

Not too long after the attack, we needed to drive to Connecticut to see family. From the New Jersey Turnpike, we could see two columns of smoke rise from Lower Manhattan from where the Twin Towers once stood. Reports were beginning to filter in about losses connected to our own personal social circles and to lower Montgomery County. It was personal. It was threatening. It was scary.

A year later we went to Ground Zero. It was still ill-defined, but one could gauge the immenseness of the destruction. Subsequently, we went back again and again, to see how the authorities would transform the space. Slowly, Ground Zero began to look like a sacred space. Thousands came there every day. Like Gettysburg or the Lincoln Memorial, it was sacred ground.

However, unlike Gettysburg or the beaches at Normandy, it remained difficult to understand who the enemy was and is.

It took time, but the specifics of our enemy’s identity and their supporters began to emerge, even though we attacked Iraq which didn’t seem to have a direct hand in the attack but instead presented a different security problem on a grander scale though unverified by hard evidence. The fact is the  9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is part of a complex worldwide radical Islamic movement. It was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden and others. It is part of the Salafi tradition which seeks to conquer the world for Islam and create a global caliphate governed by Sharia law. Several dozen groups are aligned under its general ideological umbrella. It views interfaith cooperation as one of its greatest enemies.

Al Queda is not the sole expression of Islamic fundamentalism. Jihadism has both Sunni and Shia components. Sunni Islam makes up about 90 percent of all Muslims and is principally rooted in Saudi Arabia, the home of  Wahhabism. Shiite Islam makes up the balance of 10 percent of world Muslims and is anchored in Iran. The differences between the two are both ethnographic and theological.  For the most part, they are at odds with one another. In some areas, they are engaged in hostilities against one another.  In other areas, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they cooperate against a common enemy, Israel and Zionism.

What is radical Islam and why, 20 years after 9/11, does it remain so dangerous?

Islamic terrorist movements have deep roots in hatred, religious and secular.  First and foremost, although perplexing to Americans is a hatred of European colonialism, although we ourselves once rebelled against our own colonial status. Second, is antipathy toward Arab monarchies, especially the Saudis, who they see as appeasers of Western influence. For example, Osama bin Laden’s main objective was the overthrowing of the House of Saud. Third, is resistance to Soviet aggression. Terrorists like bin Laden gained their basic battlefield experience fighting the Russians in Afghanistan with tremendous loss of life on all sides. Fourth, is their fight against America and its anti-Islamicist policies. Finally, all Islamic fundamentalists hate Israel and the Jewish people for their so-called colonialism, anti-Arab racism, and control of sacred land in the heart of the Islamic world.

On the first anniversary of 9/11 19 years ago, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel hosted a massive memorial service. It was the largest event of my 21 years here at the congregation. There were over 3,000 people present. There were no cries for revenge or for a crusade against Islam. People gathered here to grieve and to extend a hand of friendship while actively fighting Islamophobia.

In the years since 9/11, Interfaith efforts with Muslims have grown steadily. Particularly impressive has been a worldwide effort to build tri-faith houses of worship. In 2019, Pope Francis joined with a grand imam from Egypt to help launch a proposed Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dbabi. A Muslim-Jewish-Christian center in Berlin, Germany called “House of One,” had a groundbreaking ceremony last April and has attracted worldwide attention. But the most impressive of all the tri-faith efforts is found in the American heartland. In Omaha, Nebraska, a church, a synagogue, and a mosque joined together to create a tri-faith campus on 38 acres with a bridge, of all things, over Hell Creek. The campus already has a mosque, a synagogue, and a church. They are now building a large-scale common building for community events.

I realize that to many, dialogue with Muslims sounds naïve, but the reality is trillions of dollars and thousands of lost military and civilian lives have produced precious little in the 20 years after 9/11. The  Middle East is still a mess, the Taliban again control Afghanistan, a vicious regime remains in control in Iran, and both Hezbollah and Hamas sit armed to the teeth, on the borders of Israel.

Judaism teaches us to live lives of Hesed, of love and kindness. At times, it may seem like trying to empty an ocean of hate with teaspoons. But if we can’t empty the ocean, we can begin to build a community on the beach of Hesed. That would progress; at least here in our own community, in the United States, and perhaps the world. Christianity has its concepts of love. Islam has an emphasis on the mercy of Allah.  Judaism is built upon Hesed, divine and human love. Let us join together in the name of our common humanity and the hope for world peace.


Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.