The Human Spirit: Elul at Ground Zero

On the firs day of the month of Elul, I made my maiden visit to the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center.

Ground Zero NYC New York_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Ground Zero NYC New York_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
I recently made my maiden visit to the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center.
Chisels and jackhammers provide the music of resoluteness as towers rise again in Lower Manhattan, 12 years after the disaster.
On the way to the memorial, I hear news reports about the 21 US embassies and consulates closing as a result of what they’re calling “a credible threat” from al-Qaida. The list of closures starts with Yemen, and includes Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Madagascar, Burundi and Rwanda. The last three are countries that don’t have Muslim majorities.
9/11 was a turning point that woke up the world to the reality of terror. A terrorism expert on public radio recently reminded the public that terrorists like to celebrate the anniversaries of their successful mass murders with new attacks on the same day. From now on, we will have to be careful on April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombing.
At least one of the perpetrators seems to have been among those who murdered three young men in Waltham, Massachusetts – at least two of them Jewish – on September 11, 2011 – the 10th anniversary of the attack on the WTC and the Pentagon.
The 10th anniversary was also the day this memorial opened. It’s still a work in process. According to the brochure, the memorial honors the dead, recognizes the survivors and allows visitors to come together in the spirit of unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11. It also honors the memories of those killed on February 26, 1993, an earlier terror attack on the WTC. A 600-kilo truck bomb was detonated under the North Tower, with the hope of knocking it into the South Tower and bringing them both down. The plan failed. Nonetheless, six men and women were murdered and 1,000 wounded. The 9/11 terrorists came back to the same civilian target.
This time 2,983 men, women and children – including the more than 400 first responders – were killed, and the Twin Towers collapsed.
Not without reason, the memorial is well-protected. You have to walk through metal detectors, and show your visitor’s pass to ubiquitous guards many times.
The crowds of American and foreign tourists stand reverently around two large, square reflecting pools, the outline of the “footprint” of the two towers.
The names of the dead, from age two to 85, are inscribed on bronze parapets that surround the pool. Waterfalls cascade from a height of 10 meters into the pools and then descend into oblivion.
Watching the water flow in hundreds of parallel streams, disappearing into unreachable depths, is mesmerizing. The words of Psalm 130 echo inside: “Out of the depths have I called Thee…” How fitting that both of the major architects in this project are Israeli citizens.
Israeli-American architect Daniel Libeskind, son of Holocaust survivors, has created the master plan for reconstruction.
The site is so vast that it has its own zip code, 10048.
Israeli-American architect Michael Arad, son of ambassador Moshe Arad, has designed the memorial.
Both Libeskind and Arad won competitions with thousands of entries. As heirs to our national experience of survival, they might have had an advantage.
Libeskind’s plan includes a spiral of towers that will eventually surround the memorial. Just beyond the North Pool, 1 World Trade Center is nearly complete. At a symbolic 1,776 feet (541 meters), it will be the tallest building in the United States.
Arad uses trees and water, the traditional symbols of life and renewal in the memorial, for the design he called “reflecting absence.”
The original WTC was built just west of where the first Dutch explorers landed in 1614. It stood on a landfill of sand, silt and mud above the bedrock. A slurry wall, a remarkable feat of engineering, shielded the structure from the might of the Hudson River. The slurry wall held firm despite the collapsing towers.
Libeskind wrote, “Somehow it had withstood the unimaginable trauma of the Twin Towers’ destruction, asserting, as eloquently as the Constitution, the durability of democracy and the value of human life.”
Museum president Joseph C. Daniels told The New York Times in 2008 that he envisioned the slurry wall becoming “as iconic as Jerusalem’s Western Wall.”
That part of the memorial isn’t finished, but a tree of life, called the “Survivor Tree,” is a place of pilgrimage. A pear tree that once flourished on the site, it survived the devastation and a subsequent storm that uprooted it. The pear tree will grow amid hundreds of swamp oaks when the memorial is completed.
My cousin Mark Sokolow, a New York attorney, was in his office in the South Tower when the hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, crashed into the North Tower. His instincts were good. He began taking the stairs, descending the 38 flights from his office to the lobby. In the stairwell, he missed the mistaken all-clear announcement. At 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, he was already headed for the subway. He watched the collapse of the building where he spent his workdays on TV, from the safety of his home.
Grateful to be alive, Mark suggested a family trip to Israel. On the final day of their visit, January 27, 2002, Mark and his wife, Rena, and their teenaged daughters were in downtown Jerusalem buying sandals. Wafa Idris, a young woman volunteer with the Red Crescent, walked into the shoe store and asked for shoes. She didn’t stay long. As Mark, Rena and the girls left the shop with their sandals, Idris hit the button on her explosive belt. She killed a passerby and wounded 150 others, including the Sokolows.
Thankfully, they all survived. The New York Post ran a cover photo of Mark’s battered face and titled it “Mr. Lucky.”
But they are not counting on luck.
They’re fighting back. The Sokolows are part of a group of landmark lawsuits filed in New York federal court. The suits represent 5,000 terror victims globally – several hundred in the US. They are suing international banks that they believe supported the terrorists: Arab Bank, Credit Lyonnais, and two other foreign banks with New York offices.
Accounts at Arab Bank were allegedly used to pay cash rewards to families of suicide bombers and other so-called Palestinian “martyrs.” Records show money was supplied by two groups on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations: Hezbollah and Hamas.
Mark says that the family of his bomber, Idris, presented documentation to Arab Bank showing they were related to the woman who committed this attack.
“When the bank was satisfied, they made a payment to the family of the equivalent of $5,316.”
The Arab Bank has claimed that it abhors terrorism and only provides “humanitarian aid.”
The courts in New York will have to decide.
In the meantime, the US is sending drones to Yemen, aimed at al-Qaida terrorists.
The overseas embassies begin reopening.
The day of my visit was the first of Elul. Now, back in Israel, it feels right to have kick-started the process of introspection down at Ground Zero.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in this column are her own.