An Interfaith Memorial for September 11, 2001
[CIP Note: The original Albanian-language text of this article, with photographs, may be accessed by placing your cursor on the title Illyria at the head of the entry.]
On Saturday, September 10th, a group of Albanians participated in one of the most meaningful events held in New York City during the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the most notorious terrorist attacks ever carried out against America.
An interfaith service brought together clerics, believers and citizens from different religious and ethnic communities of the City. The host was the Park East Synagogue and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
After the Shabbat service, Rabbi Schneier was joined before the regular members of his congregation and guests, by Reverend Father Mark Arey of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and Imam Tahir Kukaj, of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center of Staten Island (Imam Kukaj also teaches at the Miraj Islamic School).
An inspiring speech was delivered to the congregation and guests by Ann Schaffer, Director of the Belfer Center for American Pluralism at the American Jewish Committee. AJC is one of the most respected Jewish community organizations in America and was one of the co-organizers of this Interfaith Prayer Service, with the motto: "Healing and Hope – Tenth Anniversary Commemoration of 9/11."
Many religions – one civilization
Reactions to the tragedy of September 11th varied, and how they reacted to it showed a lot about the essence of people, organizations and institutions. Those who moved to reach across instead of deepening the divides are those who should feel the most proud. They sought to understand rather than to judge, to build bridges instead of burning them.
There is no victory against terrorism without the ability to underline the difference between Muslims and terrorists who claim to represent Islam. Terrorists have no soul and thus no religion. Those who after September 11th reacted by attacking Muslims, mosques, Sufi tekkes and whoever looked like an Arab only helped the cause of Al-Qaida. Law abiding, freedom loving American Muslims are respected members of the American society and deserve better.
The United States, with substantial international help, can defeat Al-Qaida and in many ways has delivered powerful blows against it, from limiting its financial sources and transactions to the impressive execution of its leader, Bin Laden. However, only the Muslims can bury Al-Qaida's soul and legacy. Similarly, the Nazis were defeated by the weapons of the Allies but that would have mattered little if the Germans themselves had not buried forever Hitler's ideology and were not active in making sure that it is never revived again.
Misunderstandings and ignorance will produce shameful actions once in while even in a society as open as American society, however these episodes are especially unjustifiable in a City like New York, where people from all the corners of the globe live together side by side in such a crowded space.
In this context, interfaith prayer services are not only beautiful and inspiring initiatives, but also great occasions for the communities to "discover" each other and, in the process, to kill ignorance, fear and mistrust.
The Albanians offer one of the best examples of interfaith harmony in the world and here in America, they have been involved in a number of interfaith services in the past. The most notable took place some years ago at St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of the most frequently-visited monuments in New York City. Then, Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics prayed together on the tenth anniversary of the passing of Mother Teresa, the great humanitarian and Albanian-born nun.
On September 10th, a group of Albanians joined the congregation of Park East Synagogue for a similarly meaningful occasion. The symbolic importance of this event was greater, because it commemorated the 10th anniversary of a tragedy caused in the name of religion.
Albanian presence is applauded in the synagogue
Few places in the world could compete with the Park East Synagogue as the best spot to hold an interfaith service. The synagogue led by Rabbi Schneier is now famous for its success in building understanding and cooperation among communities. Where the guests of this event were sitting on September 10th, the Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI was present in 2008. So was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America.
When Rabbi Schneier announced to his congregation that among them was a group of Albanians, he drew respectful and meaningful applause.
The presence of the Albanians was helped by the role of the American Jewish Committee in co-organizing this event. AJC has a history of cooperation with the Albanian community in America and with our newspaper Illyria. AJC's voice is respected not only within the Jewish community but it has an important role to play in the American society. We Albanian-Americans will be forever grateful to AJC for its vocal support of NATO's military intervention to stop the ethnic expulsions and attempted genocide in Kosova in 1999. At that time, AJC raised more than a million dollars to help the Kosovar refugees forced out of their homes and their country by the dictatorial regime of Slobodan Milošević.
Over the years AJC has worked magnificently to build cooperation with several communities in in the United States, including the Albanian community. In 2008, the publisher of Illyria, Vehbi Bajrami, visited Israel in a trip designed and sponsored by the AJC for Muslim leaders from various communities in the United States. Recently, Bajrami published his book My Visit to Holy Land, which described his short but eventful journey in Israel.
Most of those in the Jewish community to whom we had a chance to talk after the service, during the luncheon served in the lower level of the building, were aware of the role of the Albanians in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. Some had not known about it until they learned the news that some Albanians would join them in the synagogue that Saturday.
The food and the drinks for the luncheon were sponsored by a dedicated Jewish couple, long time members of the synagogue, and included a number of traditional Jewish dishes, drinks and desserts. It was an introduction to another aspect of Jewish life and culture.
Considering that the Upper East Side is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan, one may assume that the congregation of this synagogue includes a number of successful professionals and businessmen of various fields, people with knowledge, experience of life and important connections. Those we met there were unassuming, kind and hospitable people who made us feel at home.
A strong wave of applause and some tears were reserved for a number of policemen and firemen who were also invited to attend the interfaith prayer service and who had participated ten years ago in the effort to rescue people before and after the collapse of the Twin Towers on the fateful day of September 11th. Hundreds of their colleagues gave their lives in those events.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a legendary religious leader in America
The spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue, Rabbi Schneier is one of the most distinguished religious personalities in the United States. He is widely admired.
President Bill Clinton honored him with the Presidential Citizens Medal, describing him as "a Holocaust survivor who has devoted a lifetime to overcoming forces of hatred and intolerance and set an inspiring example of spiritual leadership by encouraging interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding, and promoting the cause of religious freedom around the world."
He was a keynote speaker at an Interfaith Conference convened three years ago by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and was given a private audience by Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican to express the concerns of the Jewish community regarding certain recent decisions taken by the Catholic Church.
In the 1980s Rabbi Schneier served as an alternative Ambassador of the United States at the United Nations. He visited Albania several times and told our newspaper that he keeps regular contact with the Albanian Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, whenever the latter comes to New York. He described Berisha as a friend.
Albanian-Americans had the chance to know him and listen to his words in 2008, in the United Nations building, during the opening ceremony of an exhibition displaying photos of Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Schneier, himself a Holocaust survivor, spoke about his childhood in Hungary. "There was this word, I had learned early on: Tirana," he said about the capital of Albania. In that time (1930s), Albania was one of those rare countries that gave visas to Jewish people from central Europe, who, facing horrible discrimination and sensing the worsening trend of the situation were trying to immigrate to America or to the Middle East. Albania was at that time ruled by King Zog.
During the Interfaith Prayer, on September 10th, Rabbi Schneier asked the former Albanian Ambassador to the UN, Adrian Neritani, to stand, and presented him to his congregation as a personal friend. Warm applause greeted the diplomat.
During the luncheon, Rabbi Schneier sat near Imam Tahir Kukaj, for whom he expressed his high consideration.
Victims and heroes
The memory of September 11th is not easily evoked. On the weekend of the anniversary, our City, American society and the entire world had a chance to reflect on what happened, on the evil force that caused the tragedy, on the innocent victims who are gone forever, and the way that we regained our feet and faced the new challenge.
On Saturday, September 10th, many personal stories and reminiscences were shared. Rabbi Schneier spoke of a woman from his congregation who came to him thanking God that the body of her husband had been found under the rubble.
"Imagine, how it comes to a point when this young woman and her children were thankful to God, not for life, but for the chance to honor their husband and father with a proper farewell ceremony," the rabbi recalled. He spoke about the absurd situations in which many people are put by tragedies, and how they try to cope with them, facing the pain and handling life afterward.
Imam Tahir Kukaj spoke of the tragedy of his own family in Kosova, where 26 of his relatives had lost their lives at the hands of state terrorism by the dictatorial regime of Slobodan Milošević. He spoke against the use of terror against "the other" and said that our cultural and religious differences were the will of God and thus had to be respected and appreciated. His words were also applauded and very well received.
In the end, it was very touching to listen to the Jewish congregation sing and recite El Male Rachamim, as "a memorial prayer for the victims of 9/11 and the rescuers who sacrificed their lives to save lives," as well as Kaddish, as "a memorial prayer for the dead."
I have heard and read many stories there about those who lost their lives on September 11th, but the one that impressed me the most was the story of Abe Zelmanowitz, an Orthodox Jew who worked as program analyst in the 27th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center.
His floor was low enough for him to save his life and evacuate the building with others. However, he did not want to leave behind, and alone, his officemate, Ed Beyea, who was a quadriplegic and could not move. Abe was hoping that firefighters would help him carry his friend down the stairs.
In the last phone call that he made to his family, Abe said that a firefighter was there and they were moving to another space. It was the last time that they heard from him. A few moments later, the entire building collapsed.
"He did not stay to die, he stayed to help," wrote a relative of him.
Two kinds of people stood particularly out in that tragedy of September 11th: Those who died to kill and those who died to save lives. The memory of the first reminds us not to forget that the evil that caused that tragedy is still alive in this world; the memory of the latter reminds us of the force that lives inside us even in the most challenging moments. It is the memory of those like Abe Zelmanowitz that makes us all stronger and better people.