Most of the events in my life that occurred 20 years ago have long since gone away, but the morning of September 11, 2001 is different. It is not a regular component of my inner discourse, but it is a landmark and a memory that has been weaved and interwoven into the DNA of my autobiography. It’s not like it was twenty years ago.
I had just returned with my family from another year on Kibbutz Ketura, working for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and I had just launched our first North American liaison office in a small room in our Vermont home a few weeks before September 11, 2001.
The Institute, a half-decade old at the time in 2001, was and is dedicated to cross-border environmental cooperation in the Middle East. Its primary focus has been between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians on the undergraduate level, as well as trans-boundary environmental research. However, it has always seen itself as a regional environmental center, and in the past year that vision and mission has become more attainable with the Abraham Accords.
That September 2001 morning, I was in New York City to meet Hal Klopper, who was on the staff of our partner organization at the time, the Friends of Tel-Aviv University. Hal and I did not get to meet that morning, but a deep and important friendship was sealed in those hours.
The previous late afternoon, as I left a meeting on the Upper East Side, I noticed it was getting darker and darker outside. The rain began, coming down harder and harder with each footstep. I boarded the 79 crosstown bus at 79th Street as the first explosion of thunder echoed across the island.
The rain, then a downpour, quickly changed into a deluge, creating the feel of a tropical rainforest. I said a bracha, a blessing for thunder and lightning, as the bus made its way across Central Park. There was something primordial about the storm, and I reveled in its natural power in this city of so much steel and concrete.
Once at Broadway, I transferred to the 104 bus and took it down towards Lincoln Center, near where I was staying with my cousin and her husband. I arrived soaked and changed my clothes. We took in the end of the storm from their 45th-floor apartment over a takeout Chinese dinner they had called in. Once the storm had passed, the evening air was clean and clear; the city lights and its skyline were sharp and crisp.
I WOKE up the next morning to a perfect, cloudless, completely brilliant blue sky, made possible by the previous day’s storm. I got on the 1-9 subway about 8:30 a.m. I headed downtown towards Wall Street. About fifteen minutes into the ride a message came over the loudspeakers, telling us of a delay.
I thought to myself, “I can’t believe that I’m going to be late for my meeting.” I could see by the expressions other people had on their faces they were thinking the same thing. After a short while, we were told that there was an “emergency situation at the World Trade Center” and that the train was going to go straight to the end of the line at South Ferry.
Above, we could hear sirens heading downtown. We were then told the train was going to be rerouted to Brooklyn. I thought, “Now for sure I’m never going to make my meeting.” But then the train stopped at the Chambers Street station at West Broadway, a few blocks north of the World Trade Center.
I quickly got off the train thinking I would walk to my appointment. As I climbed the stairs, I noticed again how brilliantly blue the sky was that morning, but also how everyone was looking up and behind me. When I got to the top of the steps I turned around and froze. I stood there for minutes, unable to move.
I will never forget the sight of those two wounded buildings, slowly dying as they continued to burn and smoke. There was no memory file, no other experience, no other previous sensory sight to latch on to. It was like learning a completely foreign language for the first time. There was nothing to relate it to.
Despite that overwhelming new reality, I continued to try to make my planned meeting. So, I made my way east and south amid the growing chaos and noise on the ground of sirens, fire trucks, and police vehicles. I ended up in front of City Hall where a line of police officers prevented people from going further.
I then switched gears to the rabbi I am and thought I should go up to one of the police officers and say, “I am clergy; it looks like they could use help there.” As I approached an officer, I kept looking up, frightened, at the South Tower, saying to myself, “It’s going to fall.” At that moment I let fear dictate my actions and I did not offer to help. Listening to that fear may have saved my life.
A FEW minutes later there was that deep groan from the South Tower, a horrific sound I will never forget, as it tilted slightly and then crashed in on itself. It was grotesque to see the outer skeleton stand for a few seconds and then follow the rest down in a roar and rumble of thunder and a freight train.
To see something that large – that strong, that permanent – come tumbling down shook the core of my being. I felt at that moment that there was nothing left in this world that I, that we, could count on with any assurance that it would be there when we needed it.
There was no time for faith at that moment. I ran with the crowds as the volcanic-like white cloud of the pulverized building came rolling out of the city canyon towards us. I then made my way uptown with the thousands of other refugees who filled the great avenues of New York in an exodus like no other. Armed agents appeared on the steps of the US Federal Courthouse and F-15 jets scrambled overhead.
I carried the shock with me back to Vermont. I could not listen to music nor shake what I had experienced, including the nagging thought that, after the Towers had fallen, I had not turned to the devastation to help.
I was desperate to reclaim my sense of agency and do something. Since I had no High Holiday duties that year, I volunteered to work with the Red Cross at their Family Assistance Center, which had been set up at Pier 94 on the Hudson River at 54th Street. I returned to New York fifteen days later for Yom Kippur. New York was still raw from the attack.
There, the magnitude of the events of September 11 became even clearer. The Pier had been transformed into a city within a city.
Not only were the families of those who died there but also the thousands who lost their jobs and/or their homes. A labyrinth of services was available under its huge roof: insurance companies; lawyers to help process death certificates and other legal documents; police to collect DNA samples. The Red Cross was there, FEMA was there, the FBI was there, the INS was there.
There was also free food, telephones, Internet, and a colorful childcare area for those who came to seek aid. That night I would sleep on the Military Sealift Command hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, that was docked nearby at Pier 92 and had sailed to New York City to assist with the post-9/11 efforts.
THAT EVENING I was reminded of something that took on a new meaning while I prayed the evening Kol Nidre Yom Kippur service to myself in an area of the Pier set up for prayer and meditation. The Thirteen Attributes of God, which forms a central part of the High Holiday liturgy (Exodus 34:6-7), reminds us that God’s mercy lasts for 2,000 generations, while the wrong deeds of humans may last three or four generations: a ratio of 2,000 to four of good outlasting, outshining evil and bad. The activity under that large roof of Pier 94 was a reminder of that 500:1 ratio and reality.
Throughout the day, I and the other clergy spoke with family members, people who had lost their homes or livelihood. We also spoke with the firefighters, police officers, lawyers, insurance agents, and others who had come, sometimes from across the country, to be there to help. Conversations were sometimes very short and sometimes very long, yet always filled with the ever-present magnitude and thread of the reality that had brought us together.
Families were allowed in small groups to visit Ground Zero. We boarded a small ship with armed officers and were taken there. The site was filled with massive piles of rubble and twisted debris of the remains of the Twin Towers.
At one point, I gathered Jewish family members and led them in the Yizkor (Memorial) prayers of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I suggested to one woman I spoke with that she might want to take a stone from the area and place it in her loved one’s gravestone once it was set up. As we walked back to the ship, I saw her bend down and pick up something.
Sometime during the day, I was requested by an insurance agent to speak with a man who had lost his son in one of the Towers. I sat down in a temporary cubicle alone with the man and began to listen to him. Before long he was blaming the Jews for the attack and the death of the son. The attacks happened, he said, because the Jews had too much power in America. The Jew in me wanted to stand up and scream at him, but the rabbi in me knew that was not my role that day. I slowly and patiently brought the conversation back to his grief and the loss of his son.
I left the conversation shaken and placed my hands to my lowered head, made heavy by the burden and weight of the conversation. I found my way to one of the doors of the pier and sat outside in the fresh air. A US Coast Guard ship patrolled nearby. I stared at the water of the Hudson River, the afternoon sun dancing in its ripples. I was numb. I collected myself and returned to the work at hand.
As the day ended, I stood with some of the other clergy. In an interfaith act, a Russian Orthodox priest called out, “Tekiya Gedola” and I blew the Shofar’s long whole note signifying the end of Yom Kippur. I left the building and broke the fast as I waited for one of the city shuttle buses to take some of us to Penn Station.
The eating of food after Yom Kippur, among many things, is also an affirmation of life and survival. I sat on the bus as it made its way through the lit-up streets and avenues of New York and began to think of the holiday of Sukkot that would begin five days later. Its message of the frailty of life, as well as the need to build and rebuild, took on deeper significance that year. I looked forward to building our sukkah, no matter how fragile it might be.