Agency heads, rabbis, victims’ families, students reflect on event and its aftermath.
For the first five years after 9/11, Naamah Paley thought often about the burning towers, how the ground shook as the first tower fell and her horror as she watched from just five blocks away as the second tower collapsed.
“As it was coming down, I have the memory of a police officer saying, ‘Run, run as fast as you can; run north,’” said Paley, who was then a 15-year-old junior at Stuyvesant High School. “I had nightmares for years.”
This year, as 10th anniversary commemorations of 9/11 are held throughout the city next week, Paley, rabbis, Jewish agency heads and relatives of victims are remembering those events in different ways. They are assessing how it changed their lives, reflecting on what has been accomplished since then and the lessons learned from that fateful day. And they are grappling with a terrorism threat that, though it may not be as acute as it was in the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, is still very real.
“We now have emergency preparedness plans,” said Robin Bernstein, president and chief executive officer of the Educational Alliance.
“UJA-Federation gave out grants for this. We have a team that will be mobilized in an emergency, and we have created a command center where the team will gather that has a big flat-screen TV. We also have emergency go-kits and information on who to get in touch with in all our facilities in the event we have to evacuate our building.
“This is all as a result of 9/11,” Bernstein said.
With the Educational Alliance building located on East Broadway, about 20 blocks from the Twin Towers, Bernstein recalled that her staff set up cots in front of the building on Sept. 11 to help “the hordes of people who were walking up East Broadway and covered in that yellow ash” after the buildings collapsed.
“They had ash in their eyes, and they were coughing,” she remembered. “Some were disoriented and didn’t know where they were going. Some people said they were walking to Westchester. We told them to take a seat and washed their eyes out with bottled water we got from a grocery store.”
And Bernstein said they took inside “people who were walking around aimlessly carrying babies from the Trinity Day Care Center. We cleaned them up and tried to find someway to unite [the children] with their families. By the end of the day, all were picked up — and to this day I don’t know how.”
“One of the most chilling experiences was when the second plane hit and my day care cook, who was on the sidewalk helping us clean up people, said her husband works in that building. She was devastated. About 45 minutes later, while she was still cleaning up people, her husband walked up the street. It was really emotional.”
Paley, who now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said the event changed her life because after seeing the discrimination some Arab Americans experienced here after 9/11 she decided to study Arabic in college.
“I went to college in Ann Arbor [at the University of Michigan], and Dearborn, which has the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East, is only 40 minutes away,” she said. “I went to Dearborn once or twice a week and worked with third graders there. It was my first exposure to Arab Americans. …
“I’ve been open to letting that event shape me — watching it weave its way into the different experiences I’ve had. It’s helpful not to shut out that memory and to learn from it.”
Nevertheless, Paley said she has decided to leave the city this year rather than remain for the anniversary.
“I feel as the years go by that some anniversaries will be more poignant than others,” she explained.
Paley appears to be practicing a lesson Rabbi Joseph Potasnik said had been taught to weavers of Oriental rugs.
“There is a tradition that if the weavers make a mistake, they have to weave that mistake into the pattern,” he said. “Haven’t we in a sense taken the scars of our lives and woven them into a design for living so that our lives still have purpose and meaning?”
Rabbi Potasnik, who just a year before the 9/11 attack had become the Jewish chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, said the story that now “needs to be told is the story of triumph over tragedy. We were battered but not broken. When you look at the anniversary this year, you see people who — while they have holes in their hearts — are beginning with their lives again.”
He officiated at the funerals of three of the four Jewish firefighters killed that day; a total of 343 firefighters were killed.
Rabbi Potasnik recalled that 9/11 occurred just a week before Rosh HaShanah and that he — accompanied by the Fire Department’s senior Catholic chaplain, Msgr. John Delendick — walked throughout the recovery site blowing the shofar.
“I knew there were Jewish volunteers working there who would not be able to go to services because of their commitment to the victims,” Rabbi Potasnik explained. “It was interesting to see the Jews and non-Jews standing together when I blew the shofar. Wherever there were people gathered, I made sure to sound it for them. You couldn’t distinguish between Jews and non-Jews and everyone just stood for a moment of silence and respect.”
“It is important to remember in the strongest possible fashion” the events of that day, he continued. “That may cause discomfort, but it pales in comparison to what happened that day. We have to feel pain on the 10th anniversary — to feel the discomfort because all of the [9/11] families feel it everyday. … When we look at the pictures it is imperative to remember the stories of the human beings who were robbed of the opportunity to live their lives.”
Karen Klitzman, 38, was one of the 2,996 people killed that day. Her mother, Joan, said this anniversary is nothing special.
“In Judaism you have a yahrtzeit every year and don’t distinguish between five or 10 years,” she said. “To the world at large, 10 years is a nice round number. To me, it does not make a difference whether it is two or 20 years.”
Her daughter had been working at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of Tower 1. When the first plane slammed into the 101st floor, Klitzman said, “I knew no one could have survived.”
For the past 10 years, she has participated in a support group for families of 9/11 victims organized by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
“Off and on over the years there were maybe 20 participants,” Klitzman said. “From time to time there were those who lost spouses and siblings. There are five women left; the others lost sons.”
Asked if the meetings were helpful, she replied: “Yes. There is a commonality of people with the same experience. Those in the group know what we are going through and can relate to what each one is feeling. When it started, we met once a week. In the last couple of years, we have been meeting once a month.”
William Rapfogel, executive director and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said there is a “difference between reliving [the event] and demonstrating that there are lessons” that have been learned.
“There is a sense of hope that we have learned from our mistakes,” he said. “If the government said we don’t need Homeland Security anymore and took away the commitment to prevent a similar act, then I would be worried that we had not learned from this.”
“I think people believe there still is a threat [of terrorism], but not on the level of what happened on 9/11,” he observed.
Rapfogel recalled that it was decided to evacuate his offices on Maiden Lane, near Ground Zero, after the first tower collapsed.
“We felt the shaking and that was when we made the decision to walk down 21 flights,” he said. “We didn’t know if our building was going to fall or pancake or if there would be a domino effect. We just didn’t know. One of our staff people was injured coming out of the subway [after the first tower collapsed]. She was knocked down and trampled by people who were running in every direction. She suffered a broken wrist and broken rib, but managed to stand up and make it to our office two blocks away.”
Rapfogel said he put her in his car — which was covered with three or four inches of debris from the collapsed building — and took her and a man he picked up with a sprained his ankle to Gouveneur Hospital, on the Lower East Side. What is normally a seven-minute drive, took 25 minutes because of the crush of cars fleeing Lower Manhattan.
“When we got to the hospital, they were standing in the street with gurneys,” he said. “They looked at us as though we were from a distant planet because we had this cake of dust all over us.”
For the next two and a half months, Rapfogel said, 17 members of his staff — social workers and case workers — put in 20-hour days as they worked at Met Council and then volunteered to work with those who were traumatized by the events of 9/11.
Rabbi Michael Paley, a scholar in residence at UJA-Federation of New York, said his organization has prepared a resource kit for use in Hebrew schools, synagogues, community centers and Jewish agencies that wish to commemorate the event
“It’s not healthy to relive it, but I don’t think it’s possible not to,” he said. “You don’t get to choose what you live through again. … Some kind of ritual is important for this day. The anniversary is not as important as the recollection and the reflection of the day itself.”
Rabbi Paley said UJA-Federation will be holding a private commemoration of 9/11 for Jewish agency leaders, rabbis and Jewish leaders.
“Why should UJA-Federation hold a commemoration? Because we must do our part to restore the good. That’s the Jewish response. Tikun olam means gathering the disparate sparks of goodness and bringing them together again for a communal repair. … A memorial service is supposed to make you want to live again as opposed to just wallowing in grief.”
Next week: How 9/11 changed us; a look at Jewish-Muslim relations; the art of healing; author Andre Aciman reflects on the attacks.
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