Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, LCSW, Rabbinic Director, JBFCS
The World Trade Center Site as Final Burial Site:
Rabbi Weintraub, who co-leads the JBFCS 9/11 Jewish Support Group, wrote the below to reflect the groups serious spiritual concerns about the plans for the WTC Memorial.
A core tenet of the Jewish tradition is that every human being is an Image of God. Across the globe, throughout history, this deeply held belief has led the Jewish community to place great value on respect for dead bodies and human remains, on dignified burial, and on the proper maintenance of cemeteries and memorials.
For so many 9/11 family members, the remains of their loved ones have never been identified and never will be. Thus, their journey of grieving and healing has proceeded without the comfort and benefits of a burial site. Many have, of course, memorialized loved ones through significant deeds of compassion and social consciousness, e.g., by philanthropically supporting programs that help those in need. Still others have dedicated gardens, park benches, and other public memorials of those who died on 9/11.
But the fact remains that the World Trade Center site is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual if not also the actual and technical burial site for a host of 9/11 families. While Jewish tradition is deeply concerned with honoring the corpse and with the sacredness of human remains, it is no less committed to the needs of the bereaved. It therefore accords utmost importance to enabling survivors to gather, to remember, to see and speak the name of the deceased, and to grieve, both alone and communally, over time. It is with great sensitivity that Jewish legal responsa have established that, when Jews and non-Jews perish jointly in a disaster, one need not be concerned about the usual tradition of distinguishing Jewish and non-Jewish burial sites.
In keeping with these commitments and values, we must express two abiding concerns:
1. Above-Ground Marker with Names
An ancient, and universal, Jewish requirement is that burial sites be labeled with a marker of some sort (from a simple plaque to more imposing monuments), above ground, that indicates who lies beneath. This requirement has several reasons, including the assurance that the sacredness of the site will not be ignored or trampled upon, and that survivors and others have a clearly-delineated place to bring their feelings, memories, and prayers. Jewish tradition tends to discourage ostentation or undue expense, but one must be able to see and know that "Here is buried X." At the World Trade Center site, it is essential that there be an above-ground wall with the names of those who perished.
2.Interment of Human Remains
Leaving the pedantic or legal issues aside, there is no question that among the material brought to Staten Island were ashes that include much of the cremated "remains" of people. It may be difficult at this point to sift out what is human and what is other matter and to bring everything back for burial at the WTC site. Nonetheless, a transfer of remains from Staten Island and dignified burial at the WTC site is absolutely essential for the dignity of those who have not been identified and for their family members grieving process, peace of mind, and ongoing healing.
Members of the Jewish community are deeply concerned that if these religious and spiritual requirements are not addressed, spiritual, religious, and emotional difficulties will ensue. All are, however, preventable with proper design and sensitive planning:
* Mourners will experience a willful devaluation of sacred ground and a permanent desecration of their loved ones final remains. In place of an affirmation of each individual life and a clear visual reminder of every name, there will be a plaza that not only whitewashes the tragedy but buries and obscures it beneath commercial interests.
* Jews gather, rain or shine, at their loved ones final resting place, at several possible junctures during the year. These are most commonly on the yearly anniversary (yahrtzeit) of the death and before the High Holidays. Part of the comfort and solace that Jews seek is to pray "under the wings of the Shkhinah, the Divine Presence," i.e., under the heavens, not underground, and not in confined, man-made spaces. The current design precludes these traditional practices of grieving and healing.
* Some Jewish memorial prayers may be said by individuals, privately and quietly. Others, however, must be said in community, out loud, often in the powerful, piercing tones of Cantors or other ritual leaders, with eyes and hearts turned heavenward. The most well-known example of the latter type of prayer is the El Maleh Rahamim ("God, Full of Compassion ."). In recent years, on the anniversary of 9/11, groups of Jews have come to the site for such communal observance and recitation, and they fully hope and expect to be able to similarly mark the tragedy and remember those who died in the future.
* Jews, as well as Muslims, face East during both individual and communal devotion. The prayer leader in Jewish services traditionally stands at the head of the group, at the Eastern exposure. In the current underground memorial plan, there may be elements on the Eastern side (for example, reflective surfaces, images of people, doorways, etc.), that will make this difficult or impossible. The best solution to this problem is to have the natural prayer site be above ground.
We urge the authorities to take the spiritual and religious concerns of all faiths into account, and not simply assume that "those with issues" will manage, somehow, under unacceptable conditions. Following 9/11/01, the imperative to bring humanity together in peace, justice, and understanding must be the top priority for this memorial site.
These "Spirituality Notes" are excerpts from our monthly E-newsletter. Articles are © JBFCS Rita J. Kaplan Jewish Connections Programs and may be reprinted free of charge as long as this credit line is included.