A struggle to find meaning in the midst of heartbreak
From the moment the attacks of 9/11 happened, they raised questions — about faith and community and national identity. For some those horrific events wrought changes, deepening their commitment or shaking their sense of security; for others, ultimately, reflecting on the day confirmed what they always believed.
The local religious and community leaders represented below responded to a request from NJJN for their perspective on the events of 9/11 a decade later.
Rabbi Joshua Hess
Congregation Anshe Chesed, Linden
I was only a rabbinical student when the attacks on the Twin Towers occurred, so I can’t speak to the impact that it had on my congregants in Linden or my previous position in Denver. However, 9/11 did have a personal impact on me. As an aspiring and impressionable rabbinical student, I was surprised and thankful that on 9/11 my yeshiva in Baltimore took time from our rigorous talmudic studies to pray on behalf of all the injured victims and their families. We didn’t just pray for the welfare of the Jewish victims, we prayed for everyone. That moment helped inform my outlook on life and my desire to help all who are in need.
Rabbi Joel Abraham
Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood
Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, it was time to celebrate Rosh Hashana. In our community, there was a great deal of discomfort in celebrating the new year in a time of such national sorrow. As services began on erev Rosh Hashana, I addressed the congregation. I, too, had struggled with this dichotomy and had come to realize how Judaism had always allowed a place for sorrow at times of joy — reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish in every service, breaking a glass at a wedding, pouring out 10 drops of wine for the 10 plagues at the seder. I offered that since we had tempered our joy with sadness at such times, we could, with conviction, celebrate some joy in a time of such sorrow. That insight has stayed with me. I share it at weddings and recently at a service for Tisha B’Av at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp.
Self-employed CPA, living and working in Westfield
On 9/11, Gary Goldner was on a conference call in his home office. The call abruptly ended as the first plane struck the World Trade Center. He was scheduled to take the PATH train to the WTC the next morning for a meeting.
Sept. 11 has changed the uninhibited freedom this country enjoyed and took for granted up until that day. Who now remembers the absence of security lines and screenings at airports? Who can recall the time when we traveled on trains, subways, and highways and did not hear or see the message, ‘If you see something, say something?’ And who thinks back to the days we walked into a building or museum without passing our bags through an X-ray machine?
All this heightened security costs our country billions of dollars each year, millions of hours of lost time, and perhaps most importantly an incalculable loss in freedom. While I believe that all these changes are now necessary and help to ensure our safety, they are, nonetheless, a sad commentary on the change that has occurred since that tragic day.
Phyllis Bernstein Kuchner
Accountant and artist living in Westfield
On 9/11, I was commuting with my husband on the NJ Transit train into NYC. The image of the burning towers from the train window stays fresh in my mind. They needed accountants to help after 9/11, so for four months I volunteered for Safe Horizons downtown and at the family assistance center to help pay people who worked or lived in the affected area.
From 1991 to 2001, I worked in Jersey City, and while I did not experience any personal loss of any loved ones, I used to see the WTC every day from my office window. I can’t see the skyline without remembering what it looked like. We went to the restaurant Windows on the World to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. With friends from work, I often celebrated at the bar on top. It was a feel-good place.
Our civil liberties have been eroded in terms of homeland security. Are we safer for it? Not even a little. There is no stopping or even mitigating terrorism. Some group will always want to kill in the name of God, and they will do whatever it takes to circumvent security measures. As for terrorism, it has always existed in some form — there is always a threat from somewhere — and I mostly don’t care. Life must go on.
The increased xenophobia and the government’s secret assaults on civil liberties remind me of the McCarthy era — though the government’s crackdown on civil liberties during a threat goes back to the Founding Fathers, and the impulse to trade liberty for a possibly false sense of security isn’t solely American.
The only thing we can really do after 9/11 is teach children to be tolerant and smart and allow them to create a better world.
Rabbi Mark Mallach
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield
Lee Adler was the only congregant who was murdered in the attack, but we also had several who were either at Ground Zero, managed to get out but witnessed the carnage, and one family had a cousin who perished.
The impact upon myself and my rabbinate? — On a personal level, I remain extremely reluctant to go into NYC. A feeling of despair over 9/11 continues to linger within me.
As a rabbi, it has deepened my understanding of the brevity of the breath, and the need to teach how we must treasure every moment and relationship.
In addition, I have incorporated 9/11 into the Ehleh Ezekerah — the Martyrology Service recited on Yom Kippur — through a poem I wrote. That poem is read [in services] annually by Lee’s mother, Isabell:
What is a Martyr?
Some say it is one who suffers for a cause.
Some say it is one who is a victim of tyranny.
Some say it is one who dies b’kedushat Hashem,
in sanctification of God’s name.
They have been called heroes;
rushing in to save lives,
their headgear embossed with initials:
Some just performed the simple, heroic act
of getting up and going to work, day after day
in a building once before struck by terrorists.
Did they know that one day they would all become
martyrs and heroes?
Some were husbands or wives
sons or daughters
fathers or mothers
sisters or brothers
uncles or aunts
nephews or nieces
grandchildren or grandparents.
All had friends and loved ones.
All had hopes, dreams, and aspirations,
All had names.
One was called Lee,
Dr. Lee Alan Adler —
Avrum Chayim ben David Moshe v’Yitta Ester,
may his memory be for a blessing;