For more than 15 years, former Freehold Township resident Amy Weinstein, both literally and figuratively, has been picking up the pieces left behind by the 9/11 attack. As one of the curators of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan, she works to preserve artifacts and memories of the tragic day in 2001 when the Twin Towers came crashing down.
At the time, she worked for the New York Historical Society as a specialist in 20th-century collections. As the planes struck that September morning, Weinstein remembers the initial shock and horror. Shortly thereafter she considered it with a new perspective.
“We were living through a major historic event, one which would reverberate for decades, if not longer,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. “This was an opportunity to obtain, in real time, physical evidence of what had occurred as well as the reactions of survivors and witnesses.”
Crediting her supervisor with having the vision to approve the project and provide resources that got the task underway, Weinstein, 59, is still working on it. On Sunday, April 30, she will return to Freehold to tell her story to an audience at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
“I always expected that there would be a museum dedicated to the event, and when one began to be formed in 2006, I was an early hire,” said Weinstein.
In the beginning, much of the work was behind the scenes. “It wasn’t until 2014 that our building was completed and we were ready to open our doors,” she said. Today, her titles are director of collections and oral historian.
Performing these functions has brought her into close contact with scores of survivors and first responders, as well as the families of victims who were injured or killed in the attack. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a part-time fire department chaplain, played a major role on that day.
“He led a congregation located at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and once he understood what was happening, he threw open the doors of the shul and offered shelter and comfort to anyone in physical, emotional, or religious need — people of all faiths,” said Weinstein.
“Also, as soon as he organized a few volunteers, he allowed them to take over, and he personally raced to Ground Zero to work with police, firemen, and other emergency personnel.” She said Potasnik, born in 1946, is the child of two Holocaust survivors, “so he understood how important even a little comfort can be in a situation like that.”
Weinstein said she would also talk about a man named Abe Zelmanowitz, an Orthodox Jew who had a special friendship with a co-worker, Ed Beyea, a man with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair. The two — both computer programmers for Blue Cross/Blue Shield — were on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center when the first plane hit.
“Zelmanowitz could have saved himself, but refused to abandon his friend who lacked the mobility to make it down the stairs,” said Weinstein. “Beyea had a nurse, and Zelmanowitz urged her to escape, indicating that he would stay behind. She made it out, but the two friends perished.”
Noting that these were but two of scores of stories of heroism and selflessness, Weinstein said she wants her audience to understand that 9/11 was not just about the planes and the deaths and destruction they inflicted, but also about the good deeds and examples of human decency displayed in the aftermath.
Weinstein’s father, Bernard, a 90-year-old attorney who still has a law practice in Freehold, was instrumental in bringing his daughter to the local Jewish Heritage Museum. “Through my connection with the Jewish War Veterans, I met Michael Berman, a museum board member, and he thought she would be a worthwhile guest speaker,” the senior Weinstein told NJJN in a phone conversation.
Amy Weinstein took a circuitous route to her role as an historian and curator. “I was born in Manhattan and spent my early childhood in the Crown Heights and Canarsie sections of Brooklyn,” she said. “My family moved to New Jersey when I was 7 and I went to local schools, graduating from Freehold Township High School in 1975.” After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she earned a JD from Brooklyn Law School in 1983.
“I was a lawyer for a while, but it wasn’t satisfying for me, so I went back to school and studied the history of decorative art before getting my first museum job at the Museum of the City of New York,” Weinstein said. “That was my steppingstone to the New-York Historical Society in 2001 just a month or so before 9/11.”
Although she has lived virtually her entire adult life in New York City, she said fond memories of New Jersey linger on, including summertime visits to Manasquan and Sandy Hook, holiday candy at the Old Monmouth Candy Company, picking apples at the orchard, and buying eggs directly from the egg farmers, not to mention her bat mitzvah at Congregation Agudath Achim in Freehold, now known as Freehold Jewish Center.