Panel Discussion and Memorial Explore September 11 in Multiple Dimensions
On September 11, more than 150 Yeshiva University students gathered in Weissberg Commons on the Wilf Campus to mourn, commemorate and deepen their understanding of the horrific attacks that toppled the World Trade Center 11 years ago.
The night began with an emotional recitation of a kel maleh prayer by Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary for those killed in the tragedy. He then joined in a five-person panel discussion titled “9/11: Where Were You?,” which was designed to present multiple facets of 9/11 in conversation with each other, incorporating spiritual, psychological, political and practical ramifications of the day.
“The enormity of the catastrophe was obvious,” said Stephen Boak, who had been a triage paramedic at Ground Zero, as he recalled watching a team try to extract a giant, twisted steel beam from the road. “About an hour and a half in on our first day, a few officers came in with a young woman—it turned out they had found her fiancé’s body. From there, things only got worse.”
John Markowitz, a psychiatric researcher with a special focus in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, remembered walking through Central Park to join a fully-staffed emergency room at Cornell Medical Center as it braced for an influx of wounded. “We sat and sat, but nobody came,” he said. Markowitz noted that some victims are only beginning to seek psychological treatment for the first time now.
“One of the things that is so striking about PTSD is that you experience something awful, unimaginable, and you try not to think about it, which seems like good sense,” he said. “Unfortunately, the more you try not to think about it, the more it leaks back into your consciousness, so everything tends to remind you of something which reminds you of the trauma. The more you avoid your fear, the more dangerous it feels.”
Dr. Karen Bacon, the Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College for Women, recounted the reactions of Stern women on 9/11 and over the months that followed. “In the spirit of the Jewish tradition, they wanted to volunteer and to offer comfort to people who had lost friends and relatives in the World Trade Center,” she said. She explained how Stern students initially became involved with shemira, watching over the unidentified bodies and remains in a makeshift morgue near New York University Hospital, through Rabbi Allen Schwartz.
“They were the only people who lived close enough to the morgue to keep the shemira on Shabbos, and they would sit in the tent reciting psalms,” said Bacon. “I was overwhelmed by the courage it took. It wasn’t easy to sit there, and it was a creepy walk at night, but the students didn’t feel that—they just felt that they could not leave the dead alone until they could be properly buried.”
For Reiss, who was director of the Beth Din of America at the time, the tragedy also presented a halachik crisis of terrible proportions. “We had always spoken about the importance of resolving the agunah crisis, which in contemporary times always referred to men who were very much alive but refusing to grant divorces to their wives,” he said. “We had never really thought about the classical agunah case as it is described in Talmudic sources, in which a man who is very happily married to his wife goes out to sea on a business trip and is never heard from again.”
Over the next few weeks, Reiss and his staff delved into thousands of pages of Talmudic and responsa literature to prepare them for the enormous task of establishing the deaths of married men whose bodies could not be found so their wives would be free to remarry according to Jewish law. “From my perspective, the most important role the Beis Din played in this entire matter was to provide a context, a framework and comfort for these families as they dealt with unspeakable tragedy,” he said.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, a journalist, professor of Middle East politics and author of the book Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, brought his insight into terrorist cultures and strategies to the discussion. “The goal of all terrorists is not to seize territory but to seize the terrain that exists between our two ears,” he said. “Our objective has to be to make our own minds strong, aware and flexible so that we can fight off these attempts.”
Widlanski also warned that while many dismissed the 9/11 attacks as “completely unpredictable,” there had actually been a pattern of increasing attacks on American forces abroad and attempted attacks on US soil throughout the 1990s, a pattern he has noted repeating itself in the last few years. “All these interlocking acts of complacency, of not looking and not wanting to look, can be very dangerous,” he said. “People are once again much more concerned about being politically correct than factually accurate.”
For the students gathered that night, each of the panelists’ perspectives contributed to a complex and nuanced recreation of the tragedy and its impact on the American people. Following the ceremony, the audience passed through a 9/11 Sensory Memorial exhibition titled “A Collective Memory,” which was set up nearby. Curated by Mati Engel and Netanya Bushwesky, presidents of the Art Club, the memorial mixed poetry, audio art, photography and black-and-white footage from Ground Zero to evoke an aura of confusion, terror and despair. A thread of hope also ran through the exhibition, as photos taken by YU students as well as archival documentation juxtaposed photos of social activism and American patriotism with those of debris and ashen streets.
“9/11 is a tragedy that our generation experienced together,” said Adina Minkowitz, president of the Stern College for Women Student Council, which organized the evening together with the Yeshiva Student Union, Torah Activities Council, Student Organization of Yeshiva- Judaic Studies Student Council, Sy Syms School of Business Student Council and Beren and Wilf Psychology Clubs. “We are the ones who watched it all unfold on TV and the radio. We are the ones who saw what happened and how our world was changed, and we are the ones who will pass the memory of this terrible day down to our children.”
Read more about the reflections of Dean Bacon, Rabbi Reiss and other YU personalities on 9/11.