We all remember where we were, what we were doing.
The day was clear and crisp, a perfect fall day in the New York area, until 8:46 a.m. when American Airline flight 11, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sixteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. Before the hour was out, two more hijacked planes had crashed: one into the Pentagon, and the other in a field in Shanksville, Penn., where passengers, who had learned through cell phone conversations of the other plane crashes, attempted to seize control from the terrorists. The hijackers aborted their target, believed to be the White House or Capital building, crashing the plane into the ground before completing its deadly mission.
By 10:28 a.m. the twin towers had collapsed and our world had been altered, forever.
The attacks occurred six days before Erev Rosh HaShanah, a time in the Jewish calendar of reflection and repentance. Rabbis across the county went home that day to rewrite sermons to grapple with the unimaginable, hoping to offer comfort at a time when little could be found.
“Words are the best I have, but I never felt that words were adequate,” said Rabbi Ronald Mass of Temple Beth El in Spring Valley. Mass officiated at two 9/11 funerals in the following days, one for a father and son who both worked in the World Trade Center.
The words of the unetaneh tokef prayer, a central part of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy, tells us that on Rosh HaShanah we will be inscribed in the book of life and on Yom Kippur we will be sealed. The prayers asks, “How many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire.”
“I never saw those words in the same way,” says Mass, recalling that time. “These were not words on a page, these were words that really described the real human condition…it was overwhelming it its power.”
Rabbi David Berkman, of New City Jewish Center, was on his way to pay a shiva call shortly after the attacks that morning. He detoured up High Tor Mountain, knowing he could see the city from there. Others were already there, some with binoculars, but even without, he could see the plumes of smoke and ash rise.
“I was struck then by how things in our lives may appear permanent and how things in our lives seem secure, but really, they hang by a thread,” he recalls today.
He left for the shiva call, struck by the irony of having to comfort someone over such a personal loss while the country was only beginning to measure the enormity of the one he’d just witnessed.
That day, 2,996 people died, with 2,606 of them being in the towers or on the ground in the area. Rockland County, only 35 miles from ground zero, lost 75 residents or people with strong ties to the county. Ten years later, we take the time to remember with some of the members of our own Jewish community, and to tell their stories.
Lynn Lehrfeld, a special education teacher, arrived at work and the principal called the staff into her office to tell them what happened.
“My first reaction was that she was joking,” says Lynn. “My second was that both my children were down in the area.”
She went on “robo-pilot” and somebody drove her to her husband, Dan’s office in Bergen County.
Dan, meanwhile, thought it must have been a small plane that lost control — until the second plane crashed.
Their son, Eric, who worked at Random Walk Computing, didn’t work in the World Trade Center. He was attending a conference at Windows on the World, the sprawling restaurant complex on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. He and his colleagues were trapped above the flames caused by the first plane crash.
The next day the Lehrfelds made their way by train into Manhattan, to stay with their daughter Elyse, who lived on the East Side.
“People still had the hope that people were missing,” says Dan, noting the city was empty and unreal. “But I’d heard enough to understand that he didn’t get out.” The next day, Dan went to the Park Avenue Synagogue and began saying kaddish.
Lynn held out. But after seeing the images of the flames shooting out of the building over the next few days, she realized Eric was gone. “I kind of gave up hope.”
Eric was an outstanding student and voracious reader, with a love of comics and anime. He’d gone to work at Random Walk Computing in 1997 when there were only four employees. By 2001, it had grown to 130, with offices on Wall Street, in San Francisco and London. The day he died, he was only 32, with a 17-month-old daughter, Laura, and seemingly, a whole life ahead.
“I always thought that for all the nonsense your children put you through growing up, when he was holding Laura, singing songs to her, reading a book, I thought, ‘Wow, this is how it really is, the payback.’ It was the most wonderful feeling in the world,” says Lynn, pausing.“We will never see him go through his child’s milestones, and that really hurts.”
Laura will become a bat mitzvah next year. Eric’s sister will marry in December, and he won’t be there.
At minyan in the city that first Thursday after the attack, Dan sat in the back, crying. There was an aufruf for a bar mitzvah boy, also named Eric. Dan went to congratulate the family.
“I must have looked awful,” says Dan. Over the years, he and Lynn have stayed in touch with that Eric and his family. The bar mitzvah boy is now in law school, and the Lehrfelds come to measure life in some of his milestones of birthdays, holidays and graduations.
“In a sense, that’s how we Jews remember,” says Dan.
A SINGLE MOTHER
When Laurie Weinberg received a phone call from her husband Steven early on 9/11, she assumed it was related to her father-in-law’s angioplasty that was scheduled for that morning. Instead, he told her a plane had hit the other twin tower and he was in his 78th floor office watching the smoke and debris falling.
“I told him to leave the building, that if I were him I would get my stuff and go,” Weinberg says. “But the PA system was telling them to stay and he said, ‘It’s the other building, I’ll be fine where I am for now and if anything changes I’ll call you,’”
After hanging up, Weinberg turned on the radio in her office at Rockland Urology. “Just as I tuned into a clear station, I hear the announcer say the second tower’s been hit.”
She was then escorted home to New City by her aunt in a panic just in time to see the south tower collapse. “I turned off the TV and said, ‘He’s not coming home.’ I could feel it.”
But she had to focus on her three children. Her daughter, Lindsay was turning 12 in five days and they had already put a deposit and planned her bat mitzvah. And Samuel and Jason were just eight and six. “I was so worried about them. I told the kids there was an accident… and I didn’t know if he’d be coming home or not.”
With the help of many friends and family members and Rabbi Paul Kurland of Nanuet Hebrew Center, they managed to get through those first few days. They kept the TV off around the children and since Weinberg was with them all the time she didn’t know what was being said on the news. Friends went looking in all the city hospitals in the hopes of finding her husband. His brother, Paul, hung missing person flyers in the city.
Once her father-in-law recovered from what ultimately was a triple bypass, they held a memorial service, but that wasn’t until the day after Yom Kippur.
Lindsay did have her bat mitzvah, but later in the year. “I knew Steven would want her to have one,” said Weinberg. “As much as she missed her father, she got up in front of everyone and hit it out of the park.”
Although it’s been 10 years and things have changed, Weinberg says, “There’s never closure. You don’t move on, you move through.”
She is particularly proud of her children. “After all they went through at such formative years, every day I pinch myself, how lucky am I that they turned out so fantastic and hopefully are on the right path to becoming wonderful adults.”
A SISTER’S LOSS
Sondra Foner was home sick that morning in New City. She put on the television to watch the news and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center.
“I thought it was a movie,” she says. “I watched for 10 minutes before I realized what happened. Then I saw the second plane.”
The next thing she did was race to the phone to call her brother, Joel Miller, who worked at Marsh & McLennan on the 97th floor of the North Tower.
Miller was Foner’s baby brother by 11 years. She’d helped raise him. She couldn’t think that he might be gone. She spent the next several days watching the news, hoping she’d see him, catch a glimpse. She had desperate thoughts that somehow he took the chance to flee, go somewhere, but she knew, in her heart, that he wasn’t that sort of person.
The family held a memorial. And when they’d been saying kaddish for nine months, Miller’s remains were identified.
“That was like a second death,” Foner said.
A rabbi and a doctor both advised her not to tell her mother at first, that the news might actually kill the frail woman in her 90s. She had lost one son to cancer when he was in his 30s, says Foner and “I couldn’t tell her that her baby had died.”
She kept the secret much longer, even when a social worker suggested that hiding the news was probably worse for her mother, whose once dutiful son no longer visited.
Six years after 9/11, Foner’s mother died. She fell apart, realizing that she had been keeping her brother alive all that time for her mother — and for herself.
Rabbi Dana Saroken, then the assistant rabbi at New City Jewish Center, suggested she visit her mother’s grave and tell her. Foner scoffed. She didn’t believe in that sort of thing. But Saroken persuaded her, and Foner found herself talking to her mother’s grave, telling her finally about Joel’s death.
“I needed my mother to forgive me,” she says. “She always forgave everything I ever did.”
Foner has never visited the site where the towers once stood. She participates in a memorial on Sherwood Island in Connecticut, a place her brother loved.
“Ten years is supposed to be a long time,” says Foner. But it doesn’t feel that way. It’s like I blinked.
“Joel was a shul goer, the president of his synagogue. He was a wonderful brother, a devoted son, a Jewish mensch.”
SURVIVING THE 88TH FLOOR
Jeff Gertler, of New City, had been at work since 7:15 a.m. in the North Tower, where he was a project manager for a division of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, when the first plane hit, blasting a hole in the building that extended from the 92nd to the 98th floor.
“The ceiling shakes, the floor shakes, everything shakes,” says Gerlter, who could see the public corridor was in flames, lights and ceiling tiles hanging perilously.
Within no time, the floor was engulfed. Smoke was so thick Gertler could barely see three feet in front of him. Employees gathered and decided to make their way downstairs.
They could see into the elevator shafts, pockets of grease burning on the walls. Water streamed down the shaft. When they got to the 77th floor, a door was jammed, and they had to go back up to find an open staircase down.
As they were going up, he ran into a Judith Reese, a Port Authority employee. A heavyset woman, she was having trouble breathing. Gertler offered to walk with her and help her down the stairs.
They were able at firs to go three flights before she needed to rest. Then two. Then one. When they finally made it down to a floor somewhere in the mid-20s, a group of five police officers and firemen came down the stairs from a command post. They went for a chair for Reese, who they said they’d assist. Gertler assured her he’d stay with her.
One officer insisted Gerlter go. He protested. “If you don’t start down those stairs, I will show you down the stairs,” the officer insisted. Gertler didn’t understand the macho bravado. He was backed against the stairwell wall. The officer leaned in, nose-to-nose, and whispered, “This building is going to collapse.”
Gertler thought he was nuts. What building collapses? But he didn’t argue. He made his way to the lobby, an ash-covered wasteland. A fireman yelled to him, “We’re going out the window!” Gerlter and several firemen ran out, running up VIP Drive toward West Street.
Within seconds, he heard a whoosh and was engulfed in a storm of ash and dust. The North Tower collapsed. Judith Reese and the officers who helped her never made it out.
Blinded by the debris, Gertler somehow made his way to St. Vincent’s Hospital and was able to get in touch with his family. Eventually, he made it to his daughter’s apartment.
Does he think about the officer who ordered him out of the building?
“My wife says, ‘Why did you survive and others didn’t? Some people say it’s God’s plan,” says Gertler, whose story is part of The Learning Channel’s “9/11 Heroes of the 88th Floor” airing on Sept. 4.
“So maybe it was God’s plan for me to be a poppy to my grandchildren. I had two then and now I have seven.”
FROM THE GROUND
Jeff Green was listening to a book on tape, so he didn’t hear it on the radio. When he arrived on West Street, heading for the Port Authority office, where he’d been general counsel since 1991, he saw lots of police cars, sirens blaring. He turned on the radio: the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.
His wife called on the car phone, he assured her he was fine and he went to the hotel at the World Trade Center, the designated area for top brass who would be involved in any emergency efforts according to plans put in place after the 1993 bombing.
Cell phones were out and no one really knew what was going on. Green went to ask police at a nearby command center when they heard a loud roar. They slammed the door to the raining debris. None of them knew that 1 World Trade Center had just collapsed. Gertler, along with other Port Authority executives, gingerly made his way, up Church Street when the second building came down. They walked into a bar to wash their faces, and saw on television for the first time, what was going on.
Green, as part of the Port Authority executive team, made his way across the river to offices in Jersey City, and then Newark. They had been well-drilled, having participated in emergency exercises only days earlier.
In the days after he was working around the clock, worried about whether to take off for Rosh HaShanah. He asked the advice of an Orthodox chaplain, one of many religious officers who had been dispatched to the offices.
“His advice was that I needed to do what I was comfortable with,” says Green. “If I decided not to go home and to work, he was sure that God and my family would understand. If I decided to go home, he was sure the people I worked with would understand”
He decided to attend services at Beth Am Temple, but with his cell phone, something he normally would not do.
The anniversary is always significant to Green, who became all too familiar with the Catholic Mass, Protestant services, and the rituals of black churches, in the weeks after, attending memorials for Port Authority employees who had lost their lives.
“People frequently ask, ‘Where was God in all of this?” says Green. “I tend to look at the number of people who survived the Trade Center attack as being the true miracle in all of this, the tens of thousands of people who got out of the building.”
Since he was13, Ayal Lindeman knew he wanted to be a rescue worker and help those in need. During a youth training program, he had learned advanced first-aid and CPR, as well as how to make splints and back boards from sticks and pieces of cloth.
That is how Lindeman ended up on the morning of September 11, 2001, at ground zero.
“I was concerned for my family, for my friends, and for my country,” says Lindeman from Haiti where he was training 100 community-based first responders in Grand Goave to assist on a medical mission with the Haitian American Nursing Association.
In addition to disaster rescue work, Lindeman’s worked as an EMT at Spring Hill Ambulance Corp for 20 years and a licensed practical nurse in home health care for two years.
But when Lindeman talks about 9/11, he can’t stress enough that “it was the greatest rescue in history.” For him it is not about the nearly 3,000 lost, but the more than 25,000 people rescued that day.
When the towers were attacked in 1993, training afterward estimated that if the towers pancaked, as they were built to, there would be more than 50,000 casualties. If they toppled, they would likely take out an entire city block, killing more than 500,000.
As the greatest rescue in history, he says, “It is not a day of grief, sorrow or pity. It is a day of recognition, honor, tribute, and remembrance.”
One fellow rescue worker, Greg Sikorsky, a firefighter at Hillcrest Fire Department and rescue squad 46 in the Bronx, had been bringing a woman down from the 60th or 70th floor. They just made it to the lobby when the building collapsed, says Lindeman. “The last thing Greg did was lay on top of this woman to try in a last attempt to protect her as the building fell on them.”
Another rescue worker was knocked over backward by debris and blinded by scratched corneas and dust, got up and continued to help throughout the day.
“We all wanted to go home that day but we all stayed because there were people trapped and it’s what we do, it’s just what we do,” says Lindeman, who worked 11 days straight and then for the next month and a half. “I just wanted to support them and help them in any way I could.”
When asked what the rescue workers wanted, any coffee or donuts, they would respond with “Monday.” September 11 fell on a Tuesday.
Lindeman lost friends and co-workers, members of the police, fire and EMS departments. However, his relatives who worked in the World Trade Center, a brother-in-law and two cousins, were all uncharacteristically late to work that day, saving their lives.
Lindeman, who lives in Hillcrest with his wife Devora, attributes his solution-minded way of responding to tragedy to how he’s managed to help out at 11 major disasters, including Katrina, Haiti and Japan. “It isn’t a question of thinking outside the box, it’s a question of how can I use this box to create a splint.”
A positive result of 9/11, “the degree of volunteerism globally literally exploded,” says Lindeman, whose parents raised him with a mindset of helping others.
“For me, the world came to NY, so I go to the world. You get an honor, pay it forward.”
THE LITTLE BOAT THAT COULD
Eric Weisler, New City, was on his way to work by bus when cell phones began ringing, one by one, with news of accident. Something about a plane and the World Trade Center. The bus was buzzing. As they neared the city, it was clear something else was going on, with visible plumes of smoke growing larger. As they got to the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, the city was in lockdown. The bus turned around.
A year earlier, Weisler, became a part owner of the John J. Harvey, a retired New York fireboat. He’d been invited to a party, and fell in love the 130-foot boat and its past.
That day, rescue workers had summoned the Harvey to pick up and ferry people stranded in lower Manhattan. Midway through the Harvey’s mission, the boat was brought back into service to pump water.
The collapse of the twin towers disrupted hydrants and the Harvey, along with the John D. McKean and Firefeighter were the only sources of water, pumping it inland for 80 hours straight.
The ship was in bad need of repair after being banged against the seawall for all that time. Weisler went down in the days after to help put her right. During the horror of those days, he was so awed by the work of rescue workers that he looked into joining the military reserves. At age 39, however, he was told he was too old.
Instead, he became a volunteer firefighter
“I knew I needed to give back something because of this,” said Weisler, who no longer owns part of the Harvey, but is vice president of the board of directors for the ship.
“I look back on that time with respect for the people who do this as a full-time job and don’t’ have the option to not show up….A career fireman, when something like 9/11 happens, they have to go. They don’t’ think about choice. That’s something I respect. They go in no matter when it happens, what happens, they are committed to do it.”
Sara Gilbert contributed to this article.
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