Making Sense of Tragedy

Yeshiva University Alumni, Administration and Faculty Remember 9/11

They felt helpless.

Photos by V. Jane Windsor
Photos by V. Jane Windsor

Jessica Russak Hoffman, then a senior at Stern College for Women, watched the two towers of the World Trade Center burn to the ground from the window of her apartment on Lexington Avenue. “One second you’re having a normal morning, brushing your teeth,” she said. “The next you’re staring at the television, at the window, at the smoke, saying, ‘What do we do?’ ”

Dodi-Lee Hecht heard the first plane as it roared across Manhattan before crashing into the North Tower. A freshman from Toronto, she turned to her new roommates, also first-timers in New York City, and joked, “If that pilot’s not careful he’ll fly into a building.” The joke left a deep impression on her memory. “It was the kind of joke that was never going to be funny again,” said Hecht.

For students, faculty and staff of Yeshiva University on September 11, 2001, these memories are as vivid today as a decade ago. Like all New Yorkers, their experiences differ profoundly based on age and place in life, but together they create a shared narrative of shock and futility, marked by nightmarish plumes of smoke, the constant harangue of sirens, and dazed, ash-covered masses of people walking uptown to escape the debris.

“There was this terrible, overwhelming sense of fear and disbelief,” recalled Dr. Karen Bacon, The Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College. “It was like a science fiction movie. A bright, sunny day was turned into one of tragedy and horror, and I think for all of us it took days to internalize how things had changed.”

Former students remember a city without hope, where three-hour long lines to donate blood were suddenly dispersed because projected casualties were all assumed dead and subway stations were wallpapered with photos of the missing. Yet with no wounded to aid, members of the YU community responded to the devastation of 9/11 with the ultimate chesed shel emet [genuine kindness]: they dedicated their efforts to those who had perished and their loved ones.

Rabbi Daniel Rapp, associate dean of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University, was tapped to serve on the committee investigating the resulting agunah [abandoned wife] crisis. As one of the youngest members of the Beth Din of America, his understanding of current technology, including computer systems, databases and DNA analysis, was critical in establishing evidence of death that would free young widows to mourn their husbands and remarry in the future.

“Over the next few months I spent my days tracking cell phone towers, posting on company Web sites for information, searching databases to read about survivors who may have seen someone,” Rapp said. “Understanding technology was key. It was a 21st-century tragedy.”

Hoffman and Hecht, the two former Stern students, found a different way to create meaning from the senseless violence. During the week, Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek had arranged a shmira [watch] for Jewish volunteers to sit with the remains of victims being stored in a makeshift morgue near New York University Hospital, in accordance with the Halakhah [Jewish law] that bodies should not be left alone from the time of death until burial as a mark of respect. Finding volunteers for Shabbat, however, was more difficult.

With the help of Zelda Braun, the then-dean of students at Stern College, and the college’s security force, Hoffman organized a group of students to sit with the victims every Shabbat. A security guard accompanied each young woman to and from the morgue for her four-hour shift.

“It was the one thing that made me feel less hopeless,” Hoffman said. “When we were sitting in the morgue, saying Tehillim [psalms], we felt connected to 3,000 neshamas [souls], lost in this little world of souls. I realized that as long as these souls were trapped in Manhattan, we were keeping them company.”

The intervening 10 years have seen much growth and healing, not only for young women like Hecht and Hoffman but for New York City itself. One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower) rises in downtown Manhattan and the city resumes its beat, although it has been forever changed by the events of September 11.

Read reflections and excerpts of verbal accounts of September 11 from Hecht, Hoffman, Rapp and others below:

Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College

Zelda Braun, former dean of students at Stern College

Jeffrey Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History

Dodi-Lee Hecht, Stern College Alumna

Jessica Russak Hoffman, Stern College Alumna

Richard M. Joel, president, Yeshiva University

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor, Yeshiva University

Dr. Lata McGinn, associate professor of psychology, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology

Rabbi Daniel Rapp, associate dean of Judaic studies

Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of SternWe were in the midst of a review of the chemistry department by an outside team of scientists. I was very much focused on that and had come in before nine just to be all set. Shortly after I arrived, Jeffrey Mollin from our bio department came into the building and told me he had emerged from the subway and seen a plane crash into the World Trade Center. I thought it was a small private plane and had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that someone must be badly injured if not killed. Then I turned on the television. It became clear that we were facing something of which we had no knowledge, but it was very big.

As the reports became more and more frenzied, suggesting terrorist attacks, I had security lock the doors because we didn’t know what was happening. Dean Orlian and I decided not to disrupt classes because I didn’t want to create panic. I thought in some ways students were better off in their classes, continuing normally, which I knew would only last till that period was over since there was no way this horrible situation could be contained. Some students in classes had heard about it and they began to talk about what this situation could mean, but most of the students went on as scheduled for that period.

But once that period was over, then of course the students were milling around everywhere, in the halls. Some wanted to leave the building and rush home. I was afraid that even if the subways were running, which they almost certainly weren’t, students could get trampled going down the staircases. I was very strong in advising students not to leave the building.

There was just a sense, less of panic than of tremendous fear. People were glued to the television. Then the streets just started to be filled with people walking. It was like a science fiction movie. People were covered with ash and dust, just trudging down Lexington Avenue. There were no more cars. It was unbelievable. Afterwards you learned that not only was that the incinerated pieces of the building but it could have been organic matter too in the air, which is really terrible.

Everyone was wearing these masks. I think everyone was in a state of shock. The horror of it all had not entirely sunk in. I think for all of us it really took days to internalize how things had changed. So many people, I among them, said, ‘Things have changed for our foreseeable days.’

Other people in the university, faculty members and administrators, said ‘A lot of things happen in life, this will not change our lives.’ But I think it did. I think psychologically, politically, practically, this country that was a place of wide open free where you were never stopped for any reason is no longer that way. It changed a bright sunny day—and as I recall it, it was an absolutely beautiful day—into a day of tragedy and horror.

On Stern College’s location: I still am very supportive of the idea that the women can feel they’re in the center of what’s going on in life. They’re living mindfully and intensely.

My husband and I spent five years in a university in Bloomington, Indiana, and we were there during the oil embargo. I could see on the television long lines of people lining up at the gas station. We even saw people shooting each other. It was a whole disruption of the normal flow of life, and we were sitting there in Indiana and nothing was happening. I remember looking at my husband and thinking there was an upside, because life seemed so normal, and a downside, because it was surrealistic. This country was in a political crisis and we were watching the corn grow.

So I believe that especially for high school and college students who are going to inherit this world, they need to be where the action is so they can feel profoundly what needs to be done and how. I think very highly of our location but there is a price to be paid, which is that you live intensely. Our students at the time were tremendously emotionally resilient.

Zelda Braun, former dean of students at Stern College

As the towers were hit, I was on the express bus coming in from Queens. As we came out of the tunnel, the radio on the bus started saying, “The towers were hit, the towers were hit.” We saw panic on people’s faces.

I got off the bus right away and went to the office. At that point we had students who were absolutely hysterical—students on the high floors of Lexington Avenue saw planes going into the building and what they later realized were people jumping. And then of course you saw all the smoke and devastation. Locals wanted to know that their families were alright. You can’t imagine the internal panic and fear. It was right before Rosh Hashana – a lot of men weren’t at work yet because they went to shul for selichot. People didn’t know where their spouses were, not everyone had cell phone service. It was a morose kind of panic.

People were afraid the Empire State Building would be hit next. Parents were calling from all over the world. What could we do? Everyone went to volunteer at the different triage centers, but there weren’t really injured people to treat because there weren’t as many survivors. There was a tremendous feeling that we needed to do something as part of the Jewish community. But it was hard to find things to do.

We provided a lot of counseling because a lot of people were rightfully so distressed. The dormitory staff and counseling were busy all day long with students, because even if they didn’t lose a loved one, the national crisis and calamity impacted the entire community and we were a part of it. The sense of devastation and crisis that New York and all of America felt, we felt.

Transportation was a disaster. At one point, we had to find housing for over 200 women who didn’t think they could get home for Rosh Hashana. At the end, they all found a way to get home, which was a good thing—the students needed to be with their families.

Then there was Jessica Russak Hoffman and the shmira. What a Kiddush Hashem. A man read about it in the New York Times and for weeks upon end he sent a box of cookies to be put out for the students every Shabbos. People from all over were so moved by the fact that the women were doing this, even though it was definitely just a part of a larger Jewish communal effort. Still, the women here have always had an amazing capacity for commitment and the ability to do for others.

Jeffrey Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History

The immediate impact that particular day on campus: The entire campus was eerily quiet, an eerie silence on the campus among students and faculty. I was working for Dr. Lamm (then president of Yeshiva University). We put in a call to him and we told him students wanted to hear from him. He was home. He rushed up to Yeshiva and there were hundreds of students and faculty standing outside to hear from him. During his long career, there wasn’t anything else students needed more than the soothing and encouragement he delivered that day. He said, ‘We’re people of faith, we’ve been through terrorist attacks before, we have to rely upon our faith to carry us through.’ When he was speaking, there were no planes flying overhead, no cars on the street. It was extraordinarily quiet. I’ve never seen it so quiet.

I remember that many of us went up to the 12th or 13th floor of Belfer Hall, one of the highest point in Manhattan, and we could see the fires.

The other thing I recall is a certain level of fear within our community that somehow this would be blamed on us as Jews or upon Israel. It was right before Rosh Hashana and a lot of people weren’t sure what would happen. Services were longer. Thank G-d, though, those fears never materialized. Two weeks later, a survey conducted to ask Americans whether Jews were connected to the attack turned up mostly negative.

But still, there was a lot of silence and fear. We didn’t have classes that day. People were walking around because there were no classes. There was tremendous apprehension.

After the initial shock, we followed the President and [Mayor Rudolph] Giulani’s edict to get back to normal. I remember saying to my class the next day or so, ‘The best thing we can do right now is study and learn and do what we’re supposed to do as students and faculty.’ The holidays fell immediately after and we weren’t around campus for a month. I think the faculty made a big effort to say, ‘Look, in all things, we have to do what we’re trained to do, teach and learn and study.’

On long-term effects of 9/11: As far as Jews and New York City go—I really believe as a lifelong new Yorker that the last 10 years have been a decade of New Yorkers of all races and religions coming together more than in prior decades and generations. There’s been much less in terms of racial and neighborhood tension in the City. My theory, which I describe in my book (City of Promises: New York’s Jews 1920-2010) is that ironically, 9/11 taught us that as New Yorkers, more than ever before, we share a common fate in this metropolis. This is a much quieter, more unified, more American city because of 9/11.

Now every public building requires ID. Whenever I go to Yankee Stadium they check my bag. Again, as a New Yorker, that was something new, but as a Jew who’s been to Israel we were very used to it. In our shul, on high holidays or other Shabbatot, you’d walk to shul and see a police car parked outside.

Historically, when Jews saw policeman standing outside the synagogue, that was a moment of trepidation – when our grandparents saw it in Europe. When we see it, there’s a sense of security which is an American dynamic that was intensified by 9/11. To use a sports metaphor, we’re safe at home. Policeman and firemen: Our attitudes toward them have changed a lot over my entire life. Now, police are people who put their lives on the line for us and are perceived much more positive than they were before. They’re there to protect us. It’s a very different type of Jewish historical emotion.

Dodi-Lee Hecht, Stern College Alumna

I was in a four-person room in Brookdale Hall, and on Tuesday our schedules were all the same. We were waking up and getting ready for class when we heard the plane. None of us were used to New York City because we weren’t from there, so we all made jokes about the craziness of New York. I made some joke about how the plane shouldn’t fly too low or it might hit a building.

I went to class and didn’t know anything about it, just that the plane had been loud. I was in Rabbi [Shalom] Carmy’s class. It was my first semester in Stern—a lot of firsts. I remember hearing a lot of sirens and thinking ‘That makes sense, it’s NYC, everyone talks about all the sirens.’ A married girl came in from Brooklyn. She sat down and took notes like the rest of the class but as soon as class was over, she started crying. She kept saying, ‘New York City,’ and crying—nobody could really figure out what she was saying…

On sitting shmira for victims: I took a really early shift Shabbos morning. A lot of what people felt at that time in the city was a strong sense of helplessness. This was the first time that I could wake up and feel very strongly that my time had a purpose. It was really nice walking often—the city looked very pretty at six a.m. Here’s how the NYU morgue looked then: Off to the side there were police barriers and we had to go and tell them what we were doing. We got the name tag when we got there. You didn’t actually see anything. You went into this tent area. Behind that were piles of dirt where they were sifting through trying to find remains.

For me, I had all these feelings. I didn’t like New York when I got there—I only came for Stern. I thought it was loud and smelly and dangerous and far away from home. Then it was very hard for me to leave. I didn’t go home for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur and I was very reluctant to go home for Succos. I felt a strong sense of being bound to the city. I didn’t want to abandon it. That’s why I went back and stayed. I still feel bound it to it in some sense. I think when they finish that memorial they’re building, I might feel freer. You go through something with a place, you feel connected to it. You feel like you owe something to someone. Also, for all of us who were there, there was a sense of being in it together…

When it happened I remember thinking that life as I knew it was over. We were all going to go to war. I thought the world would be different and planes would come down from the sky all the time. I remember walking around and looking up, waiting for the next plane to hit. The world has changed in a lot of ways, but it also hasn’t.  I realize now that I saw this event, which happened at a transition from my childhood to adulthood, from a child’s perspective…

Subways walls were covered with missing people pictures. You walked past walls of faces of people you knew were gone while you went to work. Outside also, there were memorials that took up the square. For a long time 14th street was the farthest you could go.

Jessica Russak Hoffman, Stern College Alumna

I was in the apartments on Lexington. We had a view of the whole thing from my balcony. My roommate’s mom was on the phone with me saying, ‘Everything’s been bombed, look out your window!’ I turned on my TV and the only station working was Channel 2, I guess it was the only antenna that wasn’t on top of the WTC. The moment the second plane hit I could see both towers from the balcony. I had my toothbrush in my mouth and the sirens were going.

We stayed in the apartment as long as we possibly could. One second you’re having a normal morning, the next you’re staring at the TV, the balcony, the smoke, saying, ‘What do we do?’ We all pulled out a Tehillim and just watched.

A guy on the balcony of the apartment next to us was covered head to toe in white. He said, ‘I’m coming from downtown. I ran but I still got covered.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you get in the shower?’ He said, ‘I can’t bring myself to wash it off yet, I can’t take it off.’

Later there was a bomb scare at the Empire State building. Security told us we had to get out of the crash zone. So we walked out of the apartment with towels over our noses—we knew there was a lot of smoke and asbestos in the air and it was difficult to breathe normally. We started walking east. We couldn’t walk south because the sidewalks were taped off. We walked until we hit New York University Hospital and just stood there. Across the street was a line of people standing in front of two tables, getting names of the missing. You’d stand on line, wait to get to the front and see if the person is on the missing or dead list.

We couldn’t believe this was happening. Even Stern had a bunch of missing photos up. Everyone I knew at Stern had called the Red Cross to donate blood and everyone had been rejected because they didn’t need blood since everyone was dead. There was a sense of hopelessness. Teachers didn’t talk about it.

Rabbi Schwartz from Congregation Ohab Tzedek had organized shmira for the bodies during the week, but they needed people to do it on Shabbos. My friend called me saying, ‘What about Stern? It’s close by.’ With Dean Zelda Braun’s help said, we organized a security detail. Security would call our phones on Shabbos at 2 a.m. and walk us over to NYU. The girl being relieved would give her name tag to the girl taking the next shift and then security would walk her home—that way there was no need to carry on Shabbos. I usually did two shifts. The last girl to finish Shabbos, usually me, would take the name tag back with her. It had my face and name on it but we passed it around. I still have it…

During the first year there were families of victims who found their way to the morgue to find us. They came up to the troopers who were there and said, ‘Are there any girls here sitting shmira?’ They’d say thank you, give me a hug, and meet with Dr. Hirsch, the chief medical examiner. I also definitely saw people staring and waiting across the street. You got the feeling that they had family there, too, and were just keeping their relatives company.
The experience taught me never to say no to a mitzvah right in front of you because G-d put you where you are for a reason. It changed my college experience because in my senior year I went from being Jessica Russak to Jessica Russak, the shmira girl.

Richard M. Joel, president, Yeshiva University

On September 11th 2001, I was in Mexico City awaiting an audience with President Vicente Fox of Mexico with the chairman of Hillel, Edgar Bronfman. We spent the next six days stranded in Mexico as the world seemed to collapse. My first thoughts were to most of my family who were in Washington D.C., and to my daughter Ariella who was a student at Stern College. Thank G-d they were all safe and well taken care of. The stories of the chessed that the students of Yeshiva University showed in countless ways at that time are in many ways the hallmark of Yeshiva. But to serve a decade later as President of Yeshiva University, still in the shadow of the Twin Towers, reminds me that only by strengthening our commitment to the values of civilization and to the Jewish people’s critical role in advancing those values does our society and our life have meaning.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor, Yeshiva University

This essay is an adaptation of remarks delivered in 2002 at Yeshiva University, at a memorial service commemorating the first anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

The enormity of the depraved atrocity that was perpetrated has not yet been fully assimilated, especially by those of us who lived here, so close to the scene of the crime. Yet a number of students felt that before the effects wear off, we ought to think about remembering — how shall we recall what hap­pened and why.

We should not underestimate the importance of remembering. The philoso­pher, George Santayana, once famously said that, “Those who cannot remem­ber the past are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently, everyone agrees that it is important to remember. The question is: what do we remember, whom do we remember, and how do we remember? Let me therefore begin by putting this event into some kind of perspective.

There have been many catastrophes in history, both man-made and natural. We shall concentrate on the man-made disasters in my lifetime, and those which undoubtedly will continue in your lifetime. This list of horrors includes the gulag of Stalin, where millions of people perished; the experiment of the Com­munist regime in China — when millions of people perished; the Khmer Rouge, World War II, Cambodia…. One can give a whole list of catastrophes invented by human minds — depraved human minds, but human minds nonetheless.

And then, of course, there was the Shoah, the Holocaust. If you want to under­stand the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people and thereafter for the world, remember that we lost one third of our population. We started World War II with a world Jewish population of eighteen million; after the Shoah, we were reduced to twelve million. Now make the following very simple mathematical calculation: what would have happened if the World Trade Center catastrophe had been expanded to one third of the American people? We would have lost over eighty-two million people! And nevertheless, despite all that, the impact of what happened exactly one year ago today — even without our cal­culation — was enormous. Someone put it correctly: it exposed our vulnerability. We Americans had been living in a fool’s paradise for a long time, protected by two oceans which, at least psychologically, seemed to us to be impassable and therefore for us the permanent boundaries of our security and safety. We learned, to our dismay, that we are vulnerable, that America is no different qualitatively from every other group of human beings. And that is a very dif­ficult lesson to learn.

Let me now turn to the question of what shall we remember, and how do we remember?

There’s a great debate that is still raging as recently as this morning’s newspa­pers and it has been raging for the past year here in New York City: How and what shall we do to remember the tragic events of September 11th, 2001?

There are two opinions about the story: one of them is that the place should be left as it is — destitute, except for a museum or a monument, an ever-lasting reminder of the cruelty that struck us and an ever-lasting tribute to the close to three thousand people who were killed, the three hundred who are still alive but who were wounded for life, and the thousands upon thousands of relatives and friends who will never forget this day of infamy and who were wounded psychologically and emotionally.

There is an opposing attitude, and that is just the reverse. They are saying, ‘Yes, it is important to remember the tragedy, but we Americans are optimistic and we have to go ahead and forge our own future and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by this one terrorist strike. And if we have to rebuild, then let us rebuild. If this was the financial capital of the world, it must again become the financial capital of the world. We must show that we are not only going to survive, but we are going to thrive, and that we will not allow the terrorists to determine our future.’

So, which one ought we to emphasize? The recollection of the tragedy or the overcoming of the tragedy? Historically, we Jews have experienced both, each in its own context.

The most traumatic event in Jewish history until the Shoah was the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 70. The destruc­tion left our people devastated; our whole way of life had changed because so much of our religious, spiritual and communal life was built upon the service in Jerusalem. After that we were at a loss. Of course, we eventually filled in the vacuum, but it was a wrenching experience historically. And the question was, “How do we remember the destruction of the Temple?” There arose a group called the Aveilei Zion — the Mourners of Zion. The Aveilei Zion were people who determined that they would never forget what happened, that they would always mourn it and, therefore, never again would their mouths taste meat or wine. Never again would they indulge in full-throated laughter; nothing more than a smile did they permit themselves. They wanted to live an endless shivah, or a perpetual “Nine Days,” without any relief. Indeed, many of them did just that. But the Talmud rejected that for the simple reason as R. Yehoshua and R. Chananya said, “Ein gozerin gezeirah ella im ken rov ha-tzibbur yakhol la’amod bo” — you may not decree a law, a form of practice, or any norm for the com­munity unless most of the community can abide by it. And most people cannot live in perpetual aveilut, in endless mourning. The Sages therefore discouraged extreme mourning practices, or at least they did not encourage them. So it declined for a while, only to come up again in the Middle Ages and various other periods of Jewish history. Even to this day we occasionally mention them in our prayers, especially on Tisha B’Av — “Nahem Hashem Elokeinu et Avelei Tziyyon va-Avelei Yerushalayim.” We mention them because there was some­thing of value to what they said. Even if it was not put into a formal, normative framework, it was something precious, and so we remember them.

Hence, the question for us is: what shall we do? R. Chananya and R. Yehoshua advocated moderation. But are there other authorities in Halakhah? Is there any way of determining nowadays what we ought to do in Jewish law and in Jewish tradition? And the answer is “Yes,” and the Talmud had two minds in its reaction to catastrophe. Those two themes are called “zekher le’churban” — in memory of the churban, of the destruction. And the other one is “zekher le’mikdash” — in memory of the Temple itself. Zekher le’churban emphasized the pessimistic, the negative thinking: we remember the pain, the shame, and the national anguish. We must never forget; we owe it to the people who were destroyed, we owe it to the Temple that was ravished, we owe it to the People of Israel who had to suffer through this national cataclysm. The other memory was zekher le’mikdash — we will never forget the beauty of the Temple, we will never banish from our collective memory the glory, the sanctity, the holiness of the Temple, the service that took place, and how it united our people — and therefore, our hope that it will be re-established, rebuilt, and resurrected.

How do these two opposing themes play out in the Halakhah? Simple: zekher le’churban. This means that we observe (or should observe) memory of our defeat to this day. It means, for instance, that every home has to leave a slab of 3×3 feet unpainted in the main room, so that as beautiful as the home is, there is always a solemn note of remembering the churban. (Admittedly, this law is often neglected.) Or, at a wedding, the groom breaks a glass. The real reason is: zekher le’churban, in memory of the destruction of the Temple. At some wed­dings it is customary to put ashes on the head of the groom to remember the destruction of the Temple. So zekher le’churban is prominent and insinuates itself in many aspects of Jewish life—even at the happiest of moments.

At the same time we have practices that are zekher le’mikdash — in memory of the Beit HaMikdash itself. For instance, one of the mitzvot of Sukkot is not only the sukkah itself, but also the arba minim, the four agricultural species. The most prominent of the four especially in size, is the lulav, the palm branch. According to the Halakhah, the lulav was waved all seven days in the Beit HaMikdash; but in the gevulin — areas outside the Beit HaMikdash — it was waved only one day. That was the Halakhah before the Temple was destroyed. After the destruction of the Temple, our Rabbis legislated that in every place — even in the gevulin — we should wave the arba minim for all seven days — even though it is required only once by the Torah itself. Why all seven days? Zekher le’mikdash, in memory of the Beit HaMikdash, to give us that injection of hope and optimism.

At the Pesach seder, the korech (the famous “sandwich” of pesach matza umaror ve’okhlam be’yachad) is always eaten zekher le’mikdash ke’Hillel — because we accommodate the opinion of Hillel who ruled that one must consume all three — the meat of the Passover sacrifice, the matzah and the bitter herbs — together. The reason? Because we remember the Beit HaMikdash on this day.

Between Pesach and concluding with Shavuot, we count the omer. The omer was measure of grain, offered when the Temple was in its glory. Now, min hatorah (according to most Rishonim), we need not observe the mitzvah of omer. Never­theless we do count the sefirat ha-omer zekher le’mikdash. Interestingly, there is one minority opinion (that of the Baal HaMaor) that although the counting of the omer is zekher le’mikdash, nevertheless we do not recite the she’hechiyanu blessing — which we normally do when a mitzvah appears at certain regular intervals — because it is zekher le’churban — a reminder of the destruction of the Temple as well. Hence, we have these two divergent themes struggling with each other: on the one hand, we remember the negative, the destruction; on the other hand, we recall the beauty, the glory and our unrepressed and eternal hope to overcome the destruction and relive our ancient glory.

So the arguments, both Talmudic and contemporary, are reflections of the deeper ambivalence of the universal human psyche, the universal human mind and heart concerning catastrophes, whether natural or man-made. As a result we have paradoxical reactions: on the one hand, deep grief, mourning, border­ing on despair, a sense of defeat. On the other hand: defiance, struggle, heal­ing, hope and a striving to overcome and re-attain the glory that once was.

We experience the same theme when a relative or a loved one passes away. One “sits shiva,” we observe seven days of aveilut, of mourning. The law requires us to mourn — that is a form of zekher le’churban. Nevertheless, others who are required to visit the mourner for nichum aveilim, offering consolation to the mourner(s). We try to bring him or her back into normal life. We do this as a form of zekher le’mikdash. We appeal to the mourner to remember the good that once was, the beauty, the love, the happiness that they attained and thereby bring the mourners back into a state of “normalcy” where they can continue living later on. Again, the two themes are like Siamese twins — or better, related to each other like twin stars, revolving around each other. But both themes are there and active, each in its own way and time.

Another example is the kaddish, the classical prayer to be recited in the case of one who lost one of seven relatives. One of the problems that occurs is: what has kaddish to do with death?! This classic expression of mourning does not have a single word to do with death! We ask that God’s great Name be mag­nified — yitgadal — and be sanctified — yitkadash shemei rabah — in the world which He created and that He accept our prayers. But not a word of reference to death. Not a word! So what does the kaddish really mean?

Shai Agnon — the great Israeli writer and Nobelist — wrote what is called a Reshut Le’Kaddish, a prayer before the kaddish. The essence of this prayer: a human king, a human president, any human leader, involved in a calamity such as war, would throw his troops into battle and he doesn’t consider each individual person. He can’t; it would be criminal for him to do so because he has a responsibility for a whole army and a whole country. What does he do? He treats them like cannon fodder: ten thousand troops here, twenty troops there, a hundred thousand troops going in afterwards. He relates to them from a global point of view. Not so is the King of Kings of Kings. For Him, every human being is a precious soldier in the army. Every human being, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or anything else, is a child of God, a soldier of God, a beloved of God. If that person dies then God’s name is diminished and God’s kedushah (His sanctity) is diminished. So when someone dies, we turn to the Almighty Hakadosh Barukh Hu and we say, ‘God, we are here to console You.’ We are menachem avel Hakadosh Baruch Hu. ‘You lost something of Your Name, of the greatness of Your Name, You’ve lost something of Your holiness,’ so we pray yitgadal ve’yitkadash shemei rabah — ‘may Your great Name be magnified, instead of diminished, and may it be sanctified, and never be desecrated.’

Thus, the kaddish, presents to us the double theme: on the one hand, of death requiring consolation; and consolation itself with its hope for a future of rec­onciliation with the Almighty.

Most remarkably, there are several forms of kaddish. They are kaddish le’eilah, kaddish titkabel, kaddish de’rabanan, and there is also kaddish de’itchadita — which is the most beautiful. (It is worth reading the translation if you do not understand the Aramaic.) Unfortunately, most people stumble over the unfa­miliar Aramaic words. In this kaddish we ask of God that His name be mag­nified and re-consecrated in a world which He will be rebuilding, in which Yerushalayim will flourish, in which the Beit HaMikdash will rise again, in which the geulah will come to Israel and for the world. And when is this kad­dish de’itchadita recited? On two occasions: one of them at an open grave, just before the interment. And the other — at the height of one’s joy in the collation offered at a siyyum masechet, when you finish a volume of the Talmud and you joyously recite the same kaddish. How remarkable! A solemn prayer recited at an open grave as a fellow Jew is being lowered to his eternal rest, and this Kad­dish is identical in every word to the kaddish of the joyous praise of the Almighty upon concluding the study of a tractate of the Talmud. One is zekher le’churban and the other — zekher le’mikdash. And again, both themes go hand in hand.

Perhaps the best symbol of this duality of zekher le’churban and zekher le’mikdash is to be found in the shofar. The Halakhah identifies three kinds of sounds: tekiah — a single long blast; shevarim — three intermediate sounds; and teruah

— staccato, nine short sobs. Shevarim and teruah symbolize weeping and crying, lamentations. The three intermediate sounds are the crying and then the sob­bing sounds of staccato. Tekiah is a sound of simcha, of joy. We are to take the weeping and the sobbing and surround them by expressions of joy. Hence, in one blast of the shofar we have the combination of zekher le’churban (the she­varim-teruah), and the zekher le’mikdash (the tekiah), as if to say that if you want to lead a good, proper and worthy life, a life of experiencing what is precious and invaluable, then you have got to identify what’s wrong but surround it with the symbol of what is right. Thus we can overcome the defeat and despair, and achieve hope and the glory and happiness, that once was normal for us.

This morning’s New York Times quoted something that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said and which is similar to what we have been saying: ‘We’ll mourn in the morning, and in the evening we’ll rededicate ourselves to rebuild.’ I agree with him almost completely about both themes, but they are not separate, with one period for mourning, and then forgetting the mourning and going on to the rebuilding. Rather, both tendencies must co-exist simulta­neously — zekher le’churban and zekher le’mikdash. We cannot afford to dispense with either of them. As we mourn those who did not survive the World Trade Center attacks, as our hearts go out to those who were injured and who lost precious relatives, we keep both tendencies in mind. We realize that we Ameri­cans are a very proud people.

The reason the vicious terrorists struck the World Trade Center is because that is a symbol of capitalism, of democracy, of American entrepreneurship and ini­tiative — and that is what our enemies wanted to devastate. Well, we are a proud people and we are an optimistic people. But if we forget the zekher le’churban, then we are unrealistic. America has learned something: we’ve learned that we are vulnerable, that after all is settled and done, we share the common lot of humanity. We discovered that life is sometimes risky. Life is fragile, life is frag­mented and not always do we successfully achieve our ends. We have always to consider the fact that lurking behind us, maybe below us and certainly above us are the threats of death and destruction. Without that knowledge we march into life unarmed and unprepared. At the same we never must allow ourselves to become a depressed people. Rather, recognizing the zekher le’churban, we rededicate ourselves with equal emphasis to zekher le’mikdash.

We must determine that this awful and dreadful anti-human event be preserved in the collective consciousness of America. But the memory of the destruction must not dominate us for all the future. Indeed, the zekher le’churban as we go on must be transformed dialectically into its opposite, into zekher le’mikdash. And the zekher le’mikdash can never afford to express itself without always hav­ing at its side the zekher le’churban. That is the way of maturity, that is the way the Sages, the guardians of our heritage, understood the reaction to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash; and how we must understand the reactions to any and all such catastrophes.

Let us hope that the victims will be remembered not only by their immediate families but by all of us and that together, they and we, will rededicate ourselves as Americans and as Jews to a greater, safer, more secure and more realistic future.

This essay is excerpted from the new book Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, Michael J. Broyde, ed. (New York: Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing, 2011), 181-188.

Dr. Lata McGinn, associate professor of psychology, Ferkauf Graduate School of PsychologyI was appointed to the taskforce created to disseminate guidelines for how to treat people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A lot of therapists then would just go on site to try to administer treatment without efficacy, and one technique, critical incident stress debriefing, involved going on site and talking about the trauma right after it happened. That technique could be very difficult and potentially harmful.

Most people, after they’ve had something traumatic happen, do recover on their own. Having symptoms after something traumatic happens is not necessarily pathological; you have to support them through that. But now you’re telling them not only have they gone through a trauma, but they’re at risk to develop an illness unless they talk about their most private and terrifying experiences in front of their office coworkers…

The idea of the taskforce was to create guidelines directly for the adult consumer, child consumer and professionals. We filtered the research into bullet points and posted it on the web, so people would get the gist of what was appropriate to do during and after trauma.

Since then, I have written a chapter in a book about 9/11, what treatment works and what’s ineffective. I was interested to see what the risk factors for developing PTSD in this situation were. If you were in the World Trade or World Financial Cente, you were more at risk. But there are also features of the individual that make them more or less vulnerable.

The whole country was anticipating there would be PTSD on a mass scale. I wanted to show that most people are fine, and some suffering is normal. The cognitive model says that people who think they’re changed permanently because of a trauma are more likely to suffer from PTSD. If you think it’s changed you for the rest of your life, you’ll never be the same again. If you became dissociated during the trauma, and didn’t know what was going on, that made you more vulnerable.

On particular cases: There was a man who was having flashbacks. He was in the World Financial Center, and had a full view of the Towers from his office, saw people falling. In particular, he kept seeing one guy climbing down the building. There was so much going on that he would look at him for awhile and then look away. Finally, when his gaze went back to him at one point, he was no longer there, which meant he fell. This man felt guilty about looking away because he thought if his gaze would have stayed on him, he could have helped him down.

He was embarrassed and ashamed because he felt like he should have helped people. He didn’t remember how he got home. He was fairly traumatized. He couldn’t go back to work, couldn’t go back to high floors, couldn’t use subways. He led a fairly restricted life until he came in for treatment. Now he’s fine and back to normal.

You do different things to aid the natural recovery process. My area of expertise is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). If you can’t recover after three months on your own, you may need help. CBT is research-based psychotherapy. It’s a really helpful treatment, but not given right after trauma because most people recover fine. The research looks to see, what point should you intervene? Intervening right after trauma occurs is not a good idea. Your body is in shock and needs to be in shock. It’s healthful and adaptive. Piercing through that is a bad idea.

Rabbi Daniel Rapp, associate dean of Judaic studiesI was chosen to be one of the three judges who would deal with the agunah cases. The other two were Rabbi Yona Reiss (then director of the Beth Din of America) and Rabbi Mordechai Willig. They chose me I think because I was the youngest member of the beis din so I was able to understand the technology better than most. Over the next few months, I spent my days looking through databases, trying to understand computer systems, tracking cellphone towers, whatever you could use to track down people’s locations as exact as possible. That was my job.

The crisis when dealing with the World Trade Center was we understood from the beginning there was a strong possibility many of these bodies would never be found. They identified 1,500 of 2,800 victims, much more than people expected. But even with that best case scenario, almost half the bodies were never identified. If that’s the case, what proof do you have that the person perished? The only proof is if you can in some way pinpoint the person being there at the time of the incident. But in the 21st-century, if someone sends out an email that morning from their desk, is that a proof? I can sit in my house and send out an email and pretend I’m sending it from my desk. But that depends on the computer system. So I’d go through various systems where people work, trying to understand, can this be done? If so, what does it prove, what does it not prove? Somebody makes a cell phone call. In downtown Manhattan there are cell phone towers basically on every block. Can you tell me which tower the signal bounced off of to give me that location?

We dealt with Metrocards. If you purchased a Metrocard with a credit card, I could identify the Metrocard and get the last time it was used. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune for months afterwards ran little snippets about each victim and they interviewed people. So I would go through databases and read as many of the articles as possible to see if any of them saw one of our victims. Basically you’re scouring the whole country at this point to figure out what happened, logging on to company Web sites and posting on company web sites for information.

On DNA evidence: DNA was a major issue. We spent time down at the offices of the Chief Medical Examiner, going over DNA evidence, trying to understand what it proved. People think of DNA as old hat now, with CSI. You have to remember the discovery of DNA wasn’t until 1956 and the first academic article about using it came out in the mid-80s. So in 2001, that’s only 15 years into it. There was a lot of doubt. Also the technology at the time was not what it is now. Rabbis who had written decisions about it were dealing with technology worse than it was then. So with DNA evidence things were very fluid, in terms of what it meant, and what it did it not. There were also many different types of DNA evidence: mitochondrial DNA, straight analysis, kinship analysis. A fellow from Berkley University, a theoretical mathematician was in contact with the beis din and gave us time to really go over the whole thing and explain to us what we should be looking for.

Reflecting on his role: Nowadays it’s very rare for this to happen. You can point to the Dakar, the Israeli submarine that went down. You can point to the 1995 bombing of the Jewish Agency in Argentina. In general, when it comes to terrorist acts you have situations where nothing’s identifiable, but on this scale, in this day and age, hopefully an agunah crisis like this will remain a rarity.

For myself personally, I was somewhat honored to be involved in the process. Here you have this major case, and I was being picked for my youth, but just to get to see how the Halakhah worked on an up-close basis was incredible. That being said, the work was hard, long and nerve-wracking. You have to remember, if a woman is married, she’s not allowed to sit shiva until we make a decision. People want to get on with their lives, not to be stuck here. So there’s this pressure to come up with a decision. Obviously on the one hand, everyone knows what we want the answer to be. On the other hand, you have to do a fine enough job that it will stand up to scrutiny.

Read more about the role of the Beth Din of America—then led by Rabbi Yona Reiss, Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS—in assisting Agunot after 9/11 in the JTA.

We invite you to share your memories or reflections of September 11 in the comments section below.

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