What Happened First
It is bedtime on this second day of Rosh Hashanah – 9/11/2019, but I can’t go to sleep before putting this story to paper. What happened today will forever be a reminder of grace, miracles and the unexplained mystery that weaves throughout our lives, that sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
As one of the rabbis leading, I had been asked to say a prayer to commemorate 9/11. I was one of the clergy leaders with the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County, founded by Rabbi Marcia Tilchin.
I proceeded in my usual manner. Since I didn’t have a prayer or reading in my own files, I reached out to the T’ruah clergy list for suggestions of prayers/poetry and to the “Creative Gateways to Transcendence” poetry group I started on Facebook five years ago.
What I ended up preparing was a combination. Rabbi colleagues told me about how Rabbi Irwin Kula had created a shofar service, with the blasts of the shofar interspersed with the actual voicemail messages from people who were in the flaming towers to their families – their final words. Even thinking about that made me sob.
My reading consisted of reading three of those voicemails, and the prayer for survivors & witnesses of 9/11 by the wonderful liturgist Alden Solovy.
The reading became part of the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, placed in the Torah service, with the Torah open.
I began by reading the three voicemails without introduction. The energy in the room shifted. Everyone, EVERYONE knew what I was reading. The silence spoke volumes as people listened and remembered where they were on 9/11, the images frozen into our consciousness.
Then This Happened
When I was done and walked back into the congregation, a gentleman who I did not know, up to me with tears in his eyes, grasped me by both shoulders – and said:- Rabbi, a miracle has happened here & I just want to thank you.
He (I later learned his name was Larry) explained that one of the messages I had read was his brother’s, who had called his wife from the towers. Larry’s brother was with Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the 658 people from that company alone who died that day in the Twin Towers.
Larry had only moved to Orange County only six weeks ago from Long Island & this was the very first year he had not commemorated 9/11 and his brother’s yahrzeit at Ground Zero, where he has gone for 17 years in a row.
In fact, Larry had helped raise his brother’s kids (who were infants when his brother was killed) and now that as they were graduating high school, he felt it was ok to leave New York.
Larry’s wife had found the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County online, and that is how he came to be sitting in our services, along with his kids.
On September 11, 2018, Larry awoke at five am in their home in Orange County, filled with deep grief, and thinking that he had made a huge mistake by not flying to New York for the ceremony at Ground Zero.
Larry told me that when I started reading his brother’s last words from the bima, he knew that he had been brought to our services for a reason.
He called it a miracle.
At Kaddish, Rabbi Marcia Tilchin (who is such a sensitive and beautiful rabbi) invited Larry to come up and share something about his brother.
He told the congregation the story that I have written here.
After services, Larry and his children were surrounded by fellow worshippers who reached out to him for words, hugs and support. He had found his new community.
That same morning, I had taught about God & the difficulty of God-language, as it is only a container, a pointer, to That Which is Beyond Us – The ALL.
I asked everyone to think about a moment that they felt totally connected, in-flow, where the boundaries dropped away, where they felt intimations of the holy and the sacred.
I asked people if they would say that that experience was an expression of The Divine/God/YHVH — and most people said yes.
Messengers From The Most High: Whether We Know It Or Not
My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, has a beautiful teaching that in part says,
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece.
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.*
The thing about being a messenger is that very often we never know the impact of our particular contribution. It could be a simple kindness that was nothing to us that to the other person meant everything.
We just never know when we are “messengers from the Most High.”
The twisting path that led me to create that particular reading for 9/11 and the winding path that set Larry on a course to choose our synagogue to worship in THAT PARTICULAR DAY can only be described as a holy moment that I cannot explain. I just say: thank you.
Here’s What I Read
“Honey, something terrible is happening. I don’t think I’m going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children”;
“Mommy, the building’s on fire. There’s smoke coming through the wall. I can’t breathe. I love you, Mommy. Goodbye”; and
“Elizabeth, I love you a thousand times over and over, and over again. Please tell Emmie I love her, and take good care of her. Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions that you will make. I will always love you.”
For 9-11 Survivors & Witnesses by Alden Solovy
G-d of the survivor,
G-d of the mourner and the witness,
Grant solace and peace to those still held by physical, emotional and spiritual distress from the attacks of 9-11.
Release them from visions of death and destruction, from guilt or shame, from fear or anger. Bind their wounds with Your steadfast love. Lift them on Your wings of kindness and grace.
Blessed are those who have found peace.
Blessed are those without tranquility.
Blessed are those who speak.
Blessed are those who stay silent.
Blessed are those who have healed.
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are those who forgive.
Blessed are those who cannot forgive.
Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Source of strength for survivors of violence and tragedy in every land and in every age. Blessed are You, Rock of Israel, Source of hope and comfort.
May this year be one of miracles and healings, large and small, for each one of you.
Interested in inspiration & tips on staying present in the midst of… whatever? Click here to get my newsletter.
* From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner‘s book, Honey from the Rock – Dʻvash MiSela: Visions of Jewish Mystical Renewal. Jewish Lights Publishing. 1994.
Mary Jane Eisenberg says
Thank you for posting your story! It is an amazing story of awe and faith!
Shayna Lester says
This is such a beautiful story. Touches my soul. May you and your family be blessed with all that is for good in this new year. Shana Tova and love….
Sylvia Quittman says
Rabbi Jill, I picture myself hearing words from a love one, knowing these were the last words. I cannot imagine the agony and yet the miracle he must have felt. I am happy for him because you, my dear friend and teacher, were there to offer your brand of kindness and caring. Love, SylviaQ
Thank you for sharing this profound, beautiful inspiring story. -Karen Sternfeld
Arlene Garelick says
THIS is everything. Thank you for reminding everyone that we are all one, and that miracles abound.
Many blessings to you and yours for the new year. I am so very moved.
Barbara Drew Labadie says
I knew Larry and Kenny, as well as their father Zack through my work in Framingham, MA… They were all wonderful people, and I think of them often, and whisper a prayer. God bless them and this wonderful Rabbi.