Amid Mosque Clamor, A Quiet 9/11 Memorial
09/07/10
Special to the Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 

A Dutch politician derided by the Anti-Defamation League as an anti-Muslim bigot is among the headline speakers slated to appear at a Sept. 11 rally in Lower Manhattan. The rally, sponsored by the group, Stop Islamization of America, will protest the proposed Islamic community center-mosque near Ground Zero.

The prior evening, a coalition of groups, including the Jewish Labor Committee and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, will hold a vigil near the project’s site to support its developers. And on Sunday, the local chapter of J Street, the dovish Israel political action commitee, will stage a “Rally for Religious Freedom” in the same area — an event designed to counter the “hate and fear” spread by the center’s more radical opponents, say organizers of the rally.

The events are a sign of how much fervor has surrounded the proposed Islamic center, Park51. But a number of groups, including the ADL and Where to Turn, an organization of 9/11 families, have objected to any political activity on Sept. 11, saying the use of that day to advance a certain agenda is disrespectful to those who perished nine years ago.

One ceremony that may be drowned out in the process will take place during Rosh HaShanah at the Wall Street Synagogue, a narrow, four-story structure that actually sits on Beekman Street, several blocks north of Wall Street.

The synagogue plans to devote the second day of Rosh HaShanah services, this Friday, to the memory of four firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11 — Paul Beyer, Tommy Halohan, Thomas O’Hagen and Bill Johnston — as well as six congregants who died that day.

Other synagogues may be holding similar ceremonies to honor the victims of 9/11. But two factors will make the event in Lower Manhattan a unique one: the congregation’s status as the closest synagogue to Ground Zero and the identity of its next-door neighbor — the small firehouse at which all four firefighters worked.

“We felt they were neighbors, we knew all of them and we had such a good relationship with them,” said Rabbi Meyer Hager, the scion of a long dynasty of rabbis and the synagogue’s spiritual leader for the past 25 years.

The rabbi explained that he and the synagogue’s leaders decided to honor the firefighters, in part, because Rosh HaShanah is a time of remembrance, as described in the Torah. He added that this year’s two days of Rosh HaShanah, beginning Wednesday night, also fall closer than usual to 9/11.

“In general, we want to remember those days because it was an extraordinarily hard time for this synagogue,” Rabbi Hager said, referring to 9/11 and its aftermath.

The fateful day began with early-morning services, as usual, and a brief lesson in halacha, or Jewish law, the rabbi recalled. By the time the second plane hit the World Trade Center, about six blocks away, he was outside the synagogue, talking briefly to Mike Rispulo, one of more than a dozen firemen who worked next door, and wondering what in the world happened. And by the time the two buildings crumbled, people who worked in and around Ground Zero had begun their exodus from the area, many of them covered with white ash.

Some of the area’s workers sought temporary refuge in the synagogue, where they asked to use the rabbi’s phone or simply rested a few moments and regained their bearings. In the meantime, a thin layer of ash — enough to cover a person’s shoes, the rabbi said — began settling over the sanctuary’s floor and benches.

Small miracles also took place that day, Rabbi Hager said.

One of them involved Yuri Ocean, a Russian-speaking immigrant who grew up with little or no religious knowledge but who had become a regular, early-morning worshiper at the Wall Street Synagogue, the rabbi recounted. Ocean would normally leave the synagogue at around 8 a.m. and walk through the plaza of the World Trade Center to his job at the World Financial Center, just west of Ground Zero. But that day, he and another congregant engaged in a friendly dispute over a point in Talmud, delaying his routine.

When Ocean finally reached the outskirts of the World Trade Center, debris had begun falling into the plaza and emergency workers were turning people back, recalled Michael Kaplan, a financial analyst in the area and the congregant with whom Ocean had argued. Kaplan is convinced that Ocean would have been hit by that debris had it not been for their dispute.

But miracles couldn’t save everyone, and the synagogue lost six congregants that day. One was Eileen Greenstein, a middle-aged woman who worked at the World Trade Center and who came to the synagogue “every holiday and every yahrzeit,” as many of its congregants have done, the rabbi said. Others were from Cantor Fitzgerald and Sandler O’Neill, financial firms that lost many of their employees on 9/11, including Herman Sandler, a co-founder of the latter company and a donor to the synagogue.

But in the days following, Rabbi Hager worked hard to reopen the synagogue’s doors, despite the soot that was continuing to fall, what Kaplan calls “the smell of destruction” in the air and the closure of streets and businesses in Lower Manhattan. After arranging for emergency power with Con Ed and after contacting the National Guard, which allowed congregants to enter the area, the synagogue held Rosh HaShanah services the week after the terrorist attack. From those days forward, the synagogue remained open for weekday services.

Abe Brown, a chasidic Jew from Borough Park and a manager at the nearby J&R electronics store, is one congregant who can’t say enough about the rabbi’s efforts in those days.

“We were here, we went through 9/11, we were physical victims, financial victims, emotional victims,” Brown said, referring to members of the area’s workforce. The only way to defy the terrorists was to show them that New York and the country could “get back to normal as soon as possible,” he added — something his own company achieved in a business sense and something the rabbi accomplished in a spiritual sense.

The weeks and months after 9/11 tested the congregation in ways that it was never challenged before, Rabbi Hager said.

Founded in 1929 by the rabbi’s father, Joseph, the congregation met initially in the loft of an office building and, later, in a small synagogue on Dutch Lane, a narrow, hard-to-find alley. The area was strictly a business district at the time, Rabbi Hager said, and the idea was to give those who worked in the area a sanctuary in which “they could say some prayers or, if they had a yahrzeit, they could say Kaddish.”

The synagogue moved to its current quarters, a remodeled factory, in 1954, the rabbi said, adding that, in the past 20 years, Lower Manhattan has also become more residential. Today, the Wall Street Synagogue serves what could be two different congregations: The 250 or more people who come in each day, “some only to say Kaddish” for their parents, drawn from the area’s workers, and the roughly 30 people who live in the neighborhood and attend Shabbat and holiday services. The former crowd is a religiously mixed one, ranging from secular to fervently Orthodox, while the latter group is mostly Orthodox, the rabbi said.

The synagogue follows a traditional level of observance, with separate seating for men and women, and Rabbi Hager received his ordination from an Orthodox seminary in Brooklyn. But he prefers to keep his synagogue unaffiliated so that everyone who walks in or attends its services can feel welcome.

Rabbi Hager agreed to a stroll around the neighborhood Sunday afternoon, after being interviewed by a reporter, and pointed out some of the area’s landmarks. Those include Ground Zero, less than six blocks from his shul, where a 9/11 memorial and museum are taking shape and where a spurt of construction is finally under way. They also include the site of the proposed Islamic community center, which two-thirds of 892 New Yorkers recently polled by the New York Times would like to see moved to another location, farther from Ground Zero. Of the sample’s 112 Jews, 55 percent would oppose the center at its current location.

Rabbi Hager takes a cautious stand on the issue, saying that whatever position he takes would alienate at least a portion of his congregation.

“I wouldn’t want to see [the center] here, because it’s objectionable to too many of the families of the victims,” he said. He believes the project’s developers should strive toward harmony, which, in his mind, means building the center elsewhere. He also downplays the anti-Muslim bigotry that has emerged over the issue, saying that not all the center’s opponents are bigoted and that it’s not something to which he pays much attention.

On the other hand, the rabbi opposes plans for Saturday’s 9/11 protest.

“It’s a sacred day, and nothing should encroach on the remembrance of those who gave their lives,” he said. “There should be no other causes that day except to remember the victims.”

During the rabbi’s stroll, employees of the shops along Park Row, across from City Hall, stopped to banter with him. At the firehouse next door to his synagogue, the rabbi greeted several firemen standing outside. The firefighters have had a history of helping the congregation whenever their assistance is needed — a point made by Tommy Collazo, a probationary fireman, who said it was one of the first things that his more senior colleagues told him. One retired firefighter would come to the synagogue and make repairs, gratis and unasked, the rabbi said.

Danny Sheehan, the company’s captain, added some insight on the relationship.

“Anyone who’s praying for us,” he said, “we’d be glad to help out.”

Last Update:

09/08/2010 - 11:11

Get The Jewish Week Newsletter

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.