Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering September 11

Eight years ago, I was living in Jerusalem. It was almost 4 in the afternoon, and my classmates and I were moving to the large classroom for our Tuesday afternoon seminar. My cell phone rang. It was my mother. She was calling to tell me that there had been a terrible accident in New York City at the World Trade Center. (Remember those 5 minutes? In between horror that there could be such a terrible accident and the realization that this was no accident?)

When the second plane hit, my mother said something to the effect of, “Oh my God, a plane just hit the second tower.” I told her, “Please, don’t hang up, we’ll never get this connection back.”

For a while my mother was one of two phone connections we had to the states. One of my classmates ran around the school looking for someone who could bring a TV to where we were. Another ran to the library to get on the internet for updates. Whoever had a spouse with them in Israel was either calling frantically or running home. I stood at the front of the classroom, relaying information from my mother to the other 62 students in the year in Israel program.

When the TV arrived and we were able to tune in to CNN, I hung up my phone and sat with Natalie to watch in horror as they showed the planes crashing and the buildings falling, over and over. After sitting in the classroom for a couple of hours, two classmates who lived across the street from HUC offered their homes to all of us. So most of us crammed into the two apartments, which happened to be in the same building, one floor apart. We used the Markleys’ apartment to watch news, and the Cytron-Walkers’ apartment to watch movies over the next two days.

For my four classmates with family or friends in New York City, those first hours were gut-wrenching. It was not until 2 in the morning our time that we heard that the last relative was safe. Most of us slept on the floor or couches in our friends’ apartments. We couldn’t be alone. We felt so helpless watching from half a world away. We held each other as tightly as we could. We wondered if we were safe as American Jews in Israel. We prayed.

My friend Heidi was living in New York at the time. Her brother was working in the World Financial Center, near the World Trade Center. She was able to talk to him only for a second before the connection was lost. She would learn much later that he was under the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. He ran when debris got too close for comfort, and made it to safety. Meanwhile, Heidi’s office was evacuated, and she and some co-workers got on a subway. It stopped in a tunnel in between two stations for what she describes as the longest 45 minutes of her life. After walking, riding a ferry, and walking more, she found her way to a bar where she was a regular. Her mother actually called the bar when she could not reach her by cell, and said it was the first time she was ever thankful her daughter was in a bar.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Stephen Wise was also at HUC when the planes hit the World Trade Center, but he was at the New York campus. They were holding morning services when they heard what sounded like a bomb exploding. They went to the street to see what had happened, then made their way to the roof of the building where they saw the second plane hit and the towers fall. Instead of standing in awe, they went to the blood centers and hospitals en masse. They rolled up their sleeves to give blood to those who needed it. They prepared triage areas in hospital parking lots for the wounded. Only the wounded never arrived. There were no wounded on September 11, only victims and the rest of us.

There are so many stories, so many memories. There are memories of tragedies and miracles. A man decides he needs coffee an hour earlier than usual. A woman sleeps in and doesn’t get to work that day. A firefighter goes back up the stairs to try to save one more life.

Memory is central to the Jewish belief system. We are commanded, “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past” (Deut 32:7). In our weekly practice, remembering is one of two ways the Torah tells us to sanctify Shabbat. We are constantly reminded that we were slaves in Egypt. Two weeks ago we read from Parashat Ki Teitze, “Remember what Amalek did to you….do not forget” (Deut 25:17-19). Memory is powerful—palpable. A memory can make us laugh or cry. It can activate our senses and stir our souls.

So tonight we remember September 11, 2001. Like the memory of Amalek, we remember the evils that befall us as a people. Even when we feel helpless, when we think there is nothing we can do, we can remember. Our memories bind us as a nation, and strengthen us as a people. We remember that even in the darkest hour of our nation, we can find a glimpse of light.

My good friend Brian called me on September 12, 2001. Brian is ex-military, and I knew that the attack would have a serious impact on him. I had been expecting his call, but I did not anticipate what he had to tell me. You see, he had missed most of the drama of the day. He spent most of it in the hospital delivery room. His wife Colleen had given birth to a beautiful baby boy on September 11th, 2001. Brian had called to ask me if I would be Nathan’s Godfather. So for me September 11th is both a day of unfathomable dread and a day of uplifting joy. A day remembered for the end of lives, and the beginning of life.

I want to close with a thought posted on Facebook this morning by Pete Pirro, my freshman year roommate at Bradley University:

Exactly eight years ago... Vulnerability crept into our nation and murdered the
innocent. War unfulfilled, life, men and women still underappreciated. Souls
sent to rest too early, fears perked, hearts swooned and time stopped.
Understand the brevity of life, remain vigilant, give of yourself and never
forget that we rest beneath a blanket of freedom stained with sweat and blood.
God Bless each and every one of you.

Zichronam livracha. May the memory of the victims of 9/11 be a source of blessing for us personally and as a nation.

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