‘What we couldn’t do was be defeated by this’
When an earthquake struck the East Coast on Aug. 23, it took Lauren Rutkin back to the terrible moment on Sept. 11, 2011, at her office in lower Manhattan, when she saw two jetliners fly into the World Trade Center.
Nearly 10 years after that grim incident, Rutkin once again left her office, reacting to what she and many others feared was another terrorist attack.
“She was affected profoundly for a very long time,” said her husband, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “She really didn’t know if she was going to live that day, and so, when the earthquake struck, she thought, ‘I’m getting out of here and asking questions later.’
“On the East Coast you don’t think ‘earthquake,’ you think ‘bomb,’” he told NJ Jewish News on Aug. 25. “We are more equipped for terrorism than for an earthquake.”
The 9/11 attacks had a profound impact on the couple. Back in 2001, Gewirtz was an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
On the morning of 9/11, he was in his nearby apartment struggling with a draft of his Rosh Hashana sermon.
The sermon “was not going anywhere. I was a young rabbi and nothing counted more than writing an outstanding and far-reaching Rosh Hashana sermon.”
Gewirtz stepped onto a treadmill to work out his writer’s block, and while he was jogging, he looked up at a TV screen and saw a replay of the first plane hitting the north tower.
His first impulse was to race over to the students at his Reform synagogue’s day school.
“I realized at that point we had to have had parents who worked down there in those buildings. I thought, ‘What are we going to tell the kids?’”
Gewirtz went from class to class, telling the students what happened while people in the temple’s office did computer searches for members who worked at the World Trade Center.
Out of 1,900 families who belonged to Rodeph Sholom, Gewirtz said, there were “around 20 people who worked there.”
“We called the people who worked down there, and if we did not get them, we went from house to house. At two of the houses, we showed up and they told us, ‘Dad didn’t come home.’”
In addition to those two congregants, Rodeph Shalom lost “a member of our family,” said Gewirtz: Dave Correa, a firefighter at nearby Engine Company 74 who moonlighted as a temple security guard.
Gewirtz had spent his day with children from his synagogue, not watching television. So the full impact of the attack began to register when he saw a truck from Engine Company 74 head back to its firehouse on West 83rd Street.
“Everyone stopped in the street and started cheering for the truck. People were saying, ‘Where’s Dave? Where’s Dave? Dave was the only one who didn’t make it back,” said the rabbi.
“The fire engine looked like it had just come out of a war. Pieces of it were missing. It was full of soot, and the guys themselves were filthy from ash. At that point I knew we were at war,” he said.
Together with leaders from other synagogues on the Upper West Side, Rodeph Shalom set up support groups for those who had lost relatives at the World Trade Center. “We went to work setting up funerals and memorial services and helping people who were in the building and got out, or, like my wife, were nearby watching people jump out of the towers.”
“We made it up as we went along because we had never dealt with this before, and there was so little to do,” said Gewirtz. “There was no blood to give because most people were dead. People showed up at the synagogue to volunteer because there was no other place to volunteer.”
“We said, ‘Let’s have a service,’ and the first night, 800 people showed up at 7 o’clock. We had 500 to 800 people show up every night. We would do a Ma’ariv service and talk. We had therapists who did volunteer work. The women who had lost husbands came. Everyone knew they had to be sensitive to people who lost, people who almost lost, and the rest of us who were dealing with the psychological reality of what had happened to our city,” the rabbi said.
As weeks went by, the rabbi found himself dealing with his congregants’ many fears. “People were not leaving their homes. They weren’t taking subways. They weren’t riding airplanes. One of the sermons I gave was that the only thing worse than getting on an airplane that could blow up was staying at home. What we couldn’t do was be defeated by this. There was a Jewish message of walking forward,” he said.
When the dreadful day of 9/11 was finally ending, “all I wanted was comfort food. So I went to the local bodega with my wife to buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream. The proprietor was a Muslim. When I walked in that night he was scared to death. I asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘People have come in here and said horrible accusatory things to me. People who bought orange juice and newspapers from me daily are now accusing me of all kinds of horrible things.
“I said to him, ‘Please, that’s not us. There are those of us who don’t believe that. We are going to take care of you.’ I woke up to the reality that one reaction is to blame and to have a fear that leads to such prejudicial comments. We started to assess Islam in ways we never thought about. I don’t think we’ve seen humanity’s best when it comes to this,” the rabbi said.