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Remembering Tragedy: A Rabbi Recalls 9/11 in New York

Remembering Tragedy: A Rabbi Recalls 9/11 in New York

September 11, 2001 started as a perfect day. I stepped out of the New York City subway station at Astor Place, felt the not-quite-crisp early autumn air on my face, and looked up to a clear blue sky. As I walked three blocks down Broadway to school, a smile spread across my faced as I relished a perfect Manhattan morning.

I turned on West Fourth Street, walked one last block to school, and just as I was about to enter the building, I ran into a friend and classmate who told me she had just seen a plane fly overhead and slam into the World Trade Center.

I walked to the corner, from which I could see straight down Mercer Street to the towers of the World Trade Center. At the time, it didn’t cross my mind that this could be an act of terrorism. I thought I was looking at an accident scene and decided to let the rescue teams do their jobs as I went to my first class of the day.

I had just begun my third year of rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). My first class that day was Medieval Jewish Philosophy, which I found engaging but also somewhat challenging to follow. That morning, there was no way Maimonides would be able to hold my attention; my classmates, too, struggled to sit still. Within minutes, our professor decided we should all go outside to see what was happening.

That’s how, back on the corner of Mercer and Fourth, I was standing outside watching as a second plane struck what we all now know was the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Like so many, I stood in disbelief as plumes of smoke rose from the building. We held our collective breath as we waited to hear news of what had happened. We assembled in the school chapel to pray, to read Psalms, to just be together.

When a classmate was reunited with his fiancée, who worked in one of the Towers, I began to weep. I felt grateful for her survival but overwhelmed by the knowledge that there would be so many loved ones left waiting. Later, I would learn that I knew people who were killed in the towers that day: a boy (by then a grown man) with whom I went to sleepaway camp, the husband of a childhood friend’s sister, a second cousin who was a member of Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn Heights.

The school administration was in touch with area hospitals to see whether there was a need for students who had trained as chaplains. All other students and faculty were asked to remain in the building until we knew it was safe to leave, so we relocated upstairs to watch the news. From the windows, we could see a parade of soot-covered humanity making their way up Broadway.

By the late afternoon, it was clear that I would be walking the 80 blocks home. I purchased a pair of red, white and blue sneakers, the only ones I could find in my size, at the ransacked Footlocker across the street from school and walked uptown with one of my professors. Today, 15 years later, I still have those sneakers.

My first stop was 20 blocks past my apartment, at the synagogue where I was the rabbinic intern. At a time when social media barely existed, hundreds of souls had found their way to the synagogue to gather in the sanctuary and to take solace in community and comfort there.

I do not remember whether we prayed or sang, although we must have done so. But I remember the feeling – the knowing – that through everything that lay ahead, through all the news to come and the devastation that would surely ensue, that this sacred community would be there for each one of us. And I felt profoundly comforted by that outstretched hand.

Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf is the spiritual leader of Port Jewish Center in Port Washington, NY.

Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf

Published: 9/09/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Death and Mourning
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