I overslept a bit on that fall morning, 3 1/2 months into my rabbinate, serving as assistant rabbi at a Long Island congregation. I remember looking out the window as I got out of bed and seeing a a beautiful day, thinking to myself about how it looked like a perfect weather kind of day.
And then the clergy secretary called.
“Hi, Rabbi. I wanted to make sure everyone you knew was ok.”
“Uh, yeah,” I stumbled, having no idea what she was talking about; I assumed that something had happened in Israel. “I’ll be in soon.”
And then I turned on the tv. And saw the horrible news. The planes hitting buildings that had been part of the familiar skyline for my entire life. I sat gaping at the tv screen for who knows how long. But eventually got myself moving. By the time I walked into the temple, both towers had fallen, the other planes had fallen, rumors began to run rampant.
Most of that day is a haze in my mind, but there are a few points are vivid in my mind’s eye. I remember sitting that afternoon, putting labels on orange postcards advertising an upcoming youth program; the mindless repetition of such work was all my brain could muster.
Every so many post cards, I’d try the phone again. Trying to get to my parents and a few friends. It took hours to reach my mom (both my parents were in the city and both were fine…they ended up staying in the city that night and drove home to NJ via Westchester a day or so later) and a few more to reach a few friends who were also fine and reported on other friends they had spoken to. I also remember that it took weeks before one could expect to make a phone call without getting those annoying three tones and the “all circuits are busy” message on the first few tries.
I also remember the staff meeting we had that day. And how we made emergency plans. And discussed how we might have to balance multiple funerals. And what we’d do about the Bar Mitzvah the coming Saturday. And how we’d address what had happened with the religious school. And how we’d be all hands on deck for a while.
And I remember flipping channels that night because I couldn’t see the footage any more; the only other thing I could find was a rerun of the Brady Bunch. Which was kind of all my brain could handle.
I’m fortunate that I didn’t know anyone directly who was killed–but I know friends of friends, and people that watched it happen, and people that should have been there, and so many that were affected. Our own congregation did not have any funerals–but many in the area did. One town over from ours was hit hard with deaths. And to say I learned more about crisis counseling and pastoral care in that month than I had in all of my education would be an understatement.
In the weeks that came after, we all adjusted. I remember all the flags–popping up everywhere it seemed. I remember an attack on a local Indian restaurant, which had to close for a time, because they wore turbans and had dark skin. I remember figuring out how to write sermons in the wake of all this. I remember the smell of smoke in the area for weeks after–getting worse as you got closer to the city–and the haze in the air. I remember that, when we had the religious school kids that Sunday make cards to send to the rescue workers, one of the second graders drew a picture of a man jumping off of the towers.
And, with all that, I remember realizing that this was a new reality.
Not an awakening I welcomed. But one that couldn’t be avoided. This was a reality where we had to respond. Had to consider everything differently. This was a moment that I’d never forget and that everyone I knew would be able to tell the story of where they were for the rest of our lives. This was a reality that I’d grapple with for years to come, and might never stop fully grappling with.
And now, looking back, I’m still mourning the loss of the old reality in some ways. But each year, as we reach the High Holy Days, I’m reminded that reality is constantly changing. And that we must constantly adapt and learn to respond. And that even when the moments aren’t traumatic, the world we know is never the same from one year to the next.
“Repentance, prayer and charity temper the severity of the decree,” we repeat throughout these coming days. What I’ve come to realize is that, no–these acts will not prevent horror from happening. But these actions can help us to deal with that which happens to us, happens around us.
What these days teach us is that how we respond is important. And helps us. And helps those around us.
And maybe, if we’re lucky, helps such horror from repeating itself.