Tragedy and faith

Providing a structure for people of all religious beliefs to deal with the dark and trying days that followed 9/11 a decade ago.

new york skyline 911 (photo credit: Courtesy)
new york skyline 911
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘When my men and I arrived at Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers were located, fires were raging out of control and the smoke was burning our eyes,” so reported Colonel Jacob Goldstein, chief chaplain of the New York Army National Guard on his experience on 9/11, 2001. “The first thing I noticed was the ash. Cars, people, buildings – everything was covered in ankledeep ash. Some time later it occurred to us that many people who had been inside the World Trade Center had been completely burned, cremated by the intense heat of the explosions. This ash was their remains.”
During the next few days and later, on Rosh Hashana, Goldstein sounded the shofar at the Ground Zero site.
‘Contending with Catastrophe’
The partnerships we need
My Word: 9/11 - Then and now, here and there
We all remember moments surrounding 9/11. My friend, Allan Rinzler of Dayton, Ohio, expressed these thoughts.
“I was sitting at my kitchen table eating my breakfast, reading the paper and watching CNBC financial reports on TV. They began showing a shot of the first tower in flames after being hit. Then I saw the second plane fly into the second tower.
“Once it started in this fashion, most people never left their homes. The streets were eerily deserted. Many businesses closed as the employees never showed up, nor did the customers. Restaurants had their worst day in years. People were just so stunned that they stayed home with eyes glued to the television sets as we saw the Twin Towers afire and finally collapse.”
Rinzler pinpoints the great anguish of that event.
“We saw people jumping out of the towers to their death rather than stay inside and burn to death. We saw the emergency responders on site risking their lives to try to save people. Unfortunately, we saw some of them die as well. We saw the clouds of smoke and debris cover the area as the Towers collapsed.”
My own experiences from that dreadful day are still marked in my memory like they occurred yesterday.
My wife, Rita, heard about the event before I did. She was teaching English to a new Russian immigrant, recently arrived in our community of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
During the lesson, the TV started to boom the news of the plane hitting the first tower.
For me, it was a fairly simple beginning to the tense days that followed – a knock at my office door at our synagogue, Temple Israel. Sam Green, the computer specialist, was upset.
“Rabbi, something terrible has happened in New York.”
We had no working TV in the synagogue so several people from the office, the cantor and I listened to the report over the radio.
“A plane has crashed into one of the buildings of the Twin Towers,” the announcer related anxiously. Then the tension built for he practically shouted out “a plane has crashed into the other tower, both buildings are in flames on the upper floors.... I don’t believe it – people are jumping out of the windows.... how very tragic.”
Returning to my office at the synagogue in Scranton, I was told, during the next hour, that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington.
Later on that chaotic day, I learned how on Flight 93 the hijackers had been overwhelmed by the passengers, who caused the plane to crash in Pennsylvania rather than allow it to reach its destination in Washington.
The feeling surrounding these terror attacks, as we assumed they were, was indescribable. The phone began to ring; computer messages were received. The attacks of 9/11 were eminently real.
ONE OF the most dramatic events which occurred in those first days after 9/11 was the receipt of a statement from the Beliefnet website written by Arthur Magida, who had grown up in Temple Israel several decades earlier. He had become a lecturer and a college professor specializing in writing about religion. I had read several of his essays about rituals in various faiths and their impact on society. He had also written five books, which were most informative.
His statement on 9/11 became one of the key religious testaments to which people would relate as they were trying to understand this enormous tragedy. I was proud because he was from my Scranton synagogue, but I was even more moved by the way he provided a structure for people of all faiths to deal with those dark and trying days.
“Engage in tikkun olam, says Judaism – repair the world. Make it a good world, an honorable world, a decent world. A world worthy of its Creator, who had such high hopes for it.”
Magida then began to deal with the tragedy which had occurred.
“Don’t inflict injury through act or deed, to any sentient creature. Engage in good conduct, right conduct, blessed conduct.
Recognize the specialness of all of us, our worth, our decency.” There is a uniqueness in each of us which Magida wants to emphasize.
“And now something indecent has happened and it strikes at the very core, not just of our nation, but at something deeper and more fragile than that; at our sense of who we are and what we are and how we are to live our lives. We try to repair the world and it collapses down on us.”
Like the prophets of old he calls out.
“What can we do at such moments? Be kind and remember that we are not saintly, but pervious to calls for rage and revenge.”
Magida suggested a path on which to tread, and in that calamitous time of 9/11 we needed to hear suggestions with clarity: “Try to be loyal to the best part of our selves... the remembrance that we harbor goodness and decency.”
He compared briefly the structural and human loss.
“More has been taken from us than two landmarks and yet-to-be-counted lives; lacking such remembrance will scourge our humanity and our decency, which are too invaluable to be added to the notches already on the gun handles of those responsible for Tuesday’s frightful carnage.”
On September 12, the phone was ringing off the hook at the synagogue. Members were calling in to see how the shul was to be protected.
“Rabbi, whoever those terrorists are – they must have ties all over the country.
We all saw what they did to the Twin Towers and Pentagon – the synagogues are next,” said one congregant.
The Scranton police chief was ahead of us all. Before we could reach him, his office called our synagogue and the other three synagogues in town plus the yeshiva and day school. A meeting was set up for leading synagogue officers, rabbis and the police. Protection was under way.
My role became twofold: one in terms of the synagogue itself; the second in terms of the ecumenical leadership of the city. A meeting was called for Thursday, September 13, at the office of the Catholic diocese where two rabbis, 10 ministers and 15 priests assembled.
For the eight years I had been a rabbi in Scranton, the ecumenical body met monthly. Items like the summer camp run by the Catholics and Protestants; the Martin Luther King Jr. annual memorial; the Holocaust Remembrance Day events had been our main agenda. Now we had to deal with vicious hatred which had killed almost 3,000 people on American soil. As priests, ministers, rabbis we knew that we had to demonstrate how specifically the religious community must function to calm the fear of the average American.
At our meeting, it became evident that each of us was going to utilize our Sabbath services to make an impact on our constituents.
“Can you imagine the fear and anxiety of the members of our community who watched these air strikes on TV over and over again? They must be wondering what type of federal leadership could have allowed this,” said one of the attendees.
When that was put forward, everyone jumped with suggestions. Somehow this evil had to be isolated as the act of a demonic group (we did not know it was al-Qaida yet) which could be specifically challenged by belief in God and in the strength of America. After much discussion, the decision was made – a 24-hour prayer vigil in the heart of the city, well advertised and highly publicized, so anyone who desired could participate. The statement by Magida would be printed and made available.
Hundreds of residents of Scranton and the surrounding areas attended the vigil.
During my two hours, I read many appropriate psalms in Hebrew and English.
WHEN I FIRST arrived in Scranton in 1993, one morning I found swastikas on the large pavement blocks next to our synagogue.
We called the police who came quickly, and with some neighbors we cleaned those sidewalks. Once there had been a rock thrown through a synagogue window.
That was repaired in silence. 9/11 was different.
Within 48 hours it became clear that Muslim terrorists were behind the attacks.
Who knew what they were planning for the Jews in the United States.
The American Jewish Yearbook in its review of the 9/11 events noted how important it was that “the security of Jewish public institutions in America be assured.”
When the conversation with the police lieutenant was held, it sounded like this: “Rabbi, your building has too many entrances and exits. There is no way that they can all be secured.”
My president answered: “This is really serious – thousands of innocent people have been killed in the United States and there is no way to protect all of our doors.”
“Well, I will discuss this with the chief – we realize that your congregation is really frightened.”
Before Friday’s Shabbat services, our synagogue, the three other local synagogues, the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish day school, the yeshiva and the Home for the Aged all had security systems under police jurisdiction. Moreover, police cars were checking all the Jewish buildings much more frequently.
Our congregants saw themselves as American citizens who had to be properly protected.
By Thursday – two days after the attack – Scranton had transformed into a patriotic community like most communities in the US, large and small. There were American flags flying in front of stores in the downtown area and in the suburbs.
People were driving around in cars carrying loads of flags. They handed them out to anyone who would take a flag.
The leading local columnist, the late Joe Flannery, wrote: “I have been a patriot for a long time... almost back to World War I, but I have never seen the city draped out in such red, white and blue finery.”
President George W. Bush called for services, around the country, at noon on Friday September 14. The main Catholic church in town was filled; some Protestant churches drew large turnouts; a few people came to the synagogue. We directed them to return at 6:15 for minha and ma’ariv (afternoon and evening prayers).
To be prepared, I asked the caretaker to put out a few more chairs. Was I in for a surprise.
We had three Jewish religious events which gave our members an opportunity to synthesize for themselves the meaning of 9/11. First, there was Kabbalat Shabbat on September 14; the second – on Sunday, September 16, with a sofer (religious scribe) from Israel, there was the ceremony to begin the writing of our new sefer Torah; and there was the service for the first morning of Rosh Hashana.
For minha there were 40 people present.
By the time Kabbalat Shabbat services began, almost 200 people were in attendance; by the end of the service another 150 had come. For a small congregation of several hundred members, it was quite an outpouring. The ushers had to ferry more and more chairs into the sanctuary.
As someone put it, there was a “surge for synagogue seats” that Friday night.
After kiddush I asked everyone to remain standing so the cantor could lead in the singing of “God Bless America” and then “Hatikva.”
The voices joined with the cantor’s and rose to the heavens. They sat down. It was my turn. I asked everyone present to join me in a prayer for the nephew of a doctor in our congregation. The young man had been killed in the Pentagon where he worked.
I began my remarks with quotes from Bush’s address to the nation on 9/11 itself.
“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks,” Bush emphasized, “can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.”
Then the president made clear why this terrible act had occurred.
“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.
“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace... we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”
I looked out at all the congregants, young and old, and I stated with a real sense of pride: “I feel today that we are one nation, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, black and white and brown. We are one nation indivisible, united in our fear and outrage, our compassion and resolve.
From now on September 11 will be a second Memorial Day to honor our civilian casualties of war.”
That line brought some loud bravos from those present. I talked about our need to support our president and to reach out our hands to bring comfort to those who had lost loved ones. In the next month $760 million was donated to assist the families who had suffered personal loss.
There were a variety of other points which I touched upon before I emphasized what was most significant: “Each of us is a reservoir of hope and strength. Surely we all saw hope in the firefighters who stood in burning debris, with boots melting, trying so hard to find more survivors.
“That hope should be a part of all our lives. We must do all that we can to help, ‘ve’im lo achshav eimatai’ – if not now, when?” Then I asked them all to rise – offered a prayer for America and all of us.
Next was Alenu (a prayer of praise); the mourner’s kaddish; and the Yigdal hymn.
Our synagogue had not commissioned a Torah scroll to be written for almost 50 years, so it was most fortuitous that Sunday, September 16, was the day selected, many months previously, for the sofer to be with us for the dramatic act of beginning a new scroll.
About 170 people showed up that morning. Although no scrolls were lost in 9/11 attacks, I compared the people killed to the Torah and how their souls had gone up to heaven.
“We have the great privilege today to each place a letter or part of a letter on the parchment, klaf. The first lines, which we will write today, will be from Bereshit [Genesis] – in the beginning God created the heaven and earth.”
There were about 60 young people present, and together – led by me and the cantor – they said loudly: “We are the beginning – we will not let the Twin Towers disaster stop us... Torah, Torah is our song.”
Less than a week since 9/11, the spirit of our new Torah had been kindled. The president of the synagogue declared: “Temple Israel knows how to meet every crisis – this time we did it with a new Torah.”
Our new Torah, when completed, would always be remembered as the key to a new era in our country and in our community.
Preparing for Rosh Hashana 5762, beginning on Monday night, September 17, the cantor was anxious to weave some American patriotic melodies into the words of the prayers. I suggested that there would be a time during the services when we could sing some of those tunes.
I did not think it was correct to change the traditional nusach (melodies).
At different times throughout Rosh Hashana, we did sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”
On the first morning of Rosh Hashana, our congregants knew that there would be great drama in the service. Before the Torah reading I related the story of Shimi Biegeliesen, of blessed memory.
When the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers where he was, he called his wife and told her that he was OK. When the second plane hit only four floors above him, he called again.
His wife was too emotional to listen so, in tears, she gave the phone to a friend who had come into her house. Biegeliesen said: “Take care of Miriam and take care of my children – I am not coming out of this.” Many people believed, when his words were repeated to them, that Biegeliesen had the strength to act on his love and commitment.
I noted that in those last two phone conversations we could see that Biegeliesen had the presence of mind to ensure that his wife would not be an aguna, according to Jewish law. By speaking both to his wife and to a friend, there were two witnesses to the fact that he was in the Twin Towers and would not emerge. At this critical moment, Halacha was such a part of him that he did what was needed so that his wife could remarry after he had died.
Then our guest of honor arrived – the son of one of our members, whose bar mitzva had been held in this main sanctuary.
The young man worked in the Twin Towers, but on the day of the attack he was caught in traffic driving his car from his home in Connecticut to work. Two hundred fellow employees on his floor were killed. He was called to the reading of the Torah, after which he recited Birkat Hagomel.

CAUGHT UP in the powerful aftermath of this tragedy, but also having a sense of hope, I led a group of congregants to New York in November 2001. Extra hours were added to a regular two-hour bus trip because of the extensive security checks for every vehicle crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into New York City. We were on our way to see the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
We came loaded with cards expressing the good wishes of our members to New Yorkers who had suffered so. When the bus finally arrived at its destination, we walked up to people on the street and in stores and wished them a brighter future.
With tears in their eyes, they thanked us for the kindness of our words and for our presence. For our group that day, the healing after 9/11 had begun.
This article dedicated to my wife, Rita, who celebrates her 70th birthday this week.