The 9/11 attacks demonstrated the worst that people can do, Jill Pila says; what happened afterward and in the 10 years since have shown the best, and she chooses to focus on the positive.
The support and strength provided by family, friends, and community helped her deal with the death of her husband, Jim Gartenberg, in the World Trade Center, and to arrive at this point, “proud of who we are.”
Pila doesn’t talk readily about 9/11. When asked about it, she told NJ Jewish News she agrees to speak only “because it is an opportunity to talk about what a hero Jim was and about the things that are important in our lives. I try to do right.”
On Friday night, Sept. 8, she will give one of those rare talks at Temple Har Shalom in Warren, where she is a member, during its Shabbat Service of Remembrance.
There are private losses, she pointed out to NJJN, and public ones, like those of the 9/11 victims, “and my husband’s death was very public.” Besides speaking with his wife several times during the ordeal, Gartenberg was interviewed on ABC-TV just minutes before the building collapsed. He was extraordinarily calm and clear, describing what he and a coworker at the Julien J. Studley real estate company were facing on the 86th floor of the North Tower. He even tried to reassure others who might be listening.
When Gartenberg died, he was 35. Pila was 34. They had a two-year-old daughter. Two weeks later, she managed to stand up and address the 1,200 people who gathered at their temple, Sharey Tefilo in Manhattan, where they lived. That inner strength, she told NJJN, came from her determination to keep life as normal as possible for her daughter, and from “the special gift that Jim had left me with.” She was three months pregnant with their second child.
Both graduates of the University of Michigan, they had met in 1989 at an alumni event he organized. She was immediately struck by his intelligence and leadership skills. “He could get people to work together — anyone, from 21 to 81. I was really impressed.” She said she knew immediately that she wanted to marry him; he took a while longer “to get to the stage where he was ready for marriage.” Their wedding was in the mid-’90s.
She gathered all her family photos and made scrapbooks. “It was my way of cherishing Jim,” she said. As soon as she could, she went back to her work as a speech pathologist. “It was easier to be busy.”
She dreamed about him a lot, still baffled by his absence and by what had happened to the United States. Over time, she came to feel his presence as a support, “as if he was looking down on us, protecting us.”
Her baby was born six months later. In 2004, she got married again, to Jay Pila, a widower with a daughter and a son, and they moved to Warren. She got busy with the school PTA, the synagogue, and her work. Pila, who grew up in Melville, Long Island, said, “This is how I’ve always been. I’ve liked being involved with community ever since I was a kid.”
Her girls are 12 and nine. Her stepchildren are 17 and 12. And they have a dog. Life is full. Her daughters, she said, are aware of 9/11, and she has taken them each year to a commemoration at a local memorial site. This year, they are planning to go to Ground Zero, to the ceremony at the newly complete memorial there.
“We remember it the same way that everyone else does,” she said. “After all, everyone talks of the fact that we live in a post-9/11 world. Just, it’s a more personal day for us than for others.”