Rabbi Jeffrey Hoffman

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

FIRST DAY, RH, 5762, 2001
Rabbi Jeffrey Hoffman

Following are what are obviously slight mistakes, but actual excerpts from Church Bulletins:

Barbara remains in the hospital and needs
blood donors for more transfusions. She is
also having trouble sleeping and requests
tapes of Pastor Jack's sermons.

During the absence of our Pastor, we enjoyed
the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon
when J.F. Stubbs supplied our pulpit.

The Rector will preach his farewell message
after which the choir will sing "Break Forth
into Joy."

I quote these ‘cos many rabbis – certainly me among them –feel more inadequate than usual in addressing the weighty themes of the High Holidays. How does one express the grief and the sadness and the anger and the despair we feel when we face the tragedy, as well as the gratitude and healing and hope and peace we feel when we see the efforts made by those offering help? Not to mention the fact that I have had several perfectly good High Holiday sermons all ready.

(Told Board: shorter sermons this year. This one doesn’t count. But, to paraphrase Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, I let you know when I come within an hour of the end of it).

Cantor Tilchin told me yesterday she was sure I had felt, as she had, that the whole country has just sat shiva for a week, and now it is time to begin to return to our more normal schedules, as impossible as it seems. For Jews, she said, the schedule calls for celebrating this holiday, the new year. And then we, along with the rest of America, will no doubt mark the anniversary of a month, and then a year… Only we’ll call it the sheloshim and the Yahrtzeit.
Let me say: As far as I know: No one dead or missing from the congregation. Friends, and co-workers, yes, but no one directly from CSI.

The local gathering to mark the tragedy, this past Sunday, September 16, which we held in Memorial Park left me upset. Angry. I’ll get back to why I was upset.

I felt that day, just 5 days after the attacks, that I needed to go to NYC!!!! So I went. I went with my son, Yossi.

Seeing American soldiers patrolling on NYC streets, just in and of itself, was an amazing thing for this native-born New Yorker.

At one point, seeing 2 very impressive-looking black-bereted troopers made me realize that I could identify the colors of Israeli soldiers’ berets in terms of paratroopers, armor, air force, and so on, but I couldn’t identify American soldiers… Because I never ever have seen American soldiers in NYC on anything but ceremonial roles.

And the sight of seeing these two burly, combat-ready soldiers walking down the sidewalk on 8th avenue, that night, by the neon lights of Dunkin’ Donuts and the electronics stores was… It was jarring.

We walked in Manhattan as close to the World Trade Center (WTC) as we were permitted to draw close to. A cop at that perimeter told me that he was at the WTC on Tuesday (September 11 itself) and the following Saturday, as well as on Sunday, when we were there. He said Saturday and Sunday were worse than on September 11 itself. Why? Because, he said, by Saturday, that part of the city was visibly altered: It didn’t look like the city.

Regarding a person, one can say – “He didn’t look like himself.” I learned, on Sunday night, one can say that about a city too.

My sonYossi said that the scene near the WTC looked like a movie – the literally dozens of satellite uplink trucks which went on for blocks. He said that in the movie “The Siege,” there was much less damage. I said: A movie about the Twin Towers being destroyed by hijacked commercial airlines would never be made. Too over the top. Would have “B movie” written all over it. Not believable enough. And it isn’t believable.

It did look like a movie and it felt and sounded like one too. The sounds included overheard snatches of conversation like “Ok, thanks, now get some sleep.” It also included the sounds of the drum circle of Christian faithful singing and handing out “Welcome to the Church” booklets to Yossi…
I was thinking of the scenes in such cataclysm movies as “Contact,” “The Siege,” and even “Ghostbusters,” (the latter taking place in NYC as well) having the obligatory shuckling Chassidim at Ground Zero, and thinking about how they were missing here. Then, I noticed a long-haired, hippie-clothed young man with tzitzis hanging out of his shirt loitering around the scene… He was soon joined by two more traditionally-clothed young Chassidim.

There were heavy duty trucks, lots of police, dazed relief workers, all lit up by generator-fueled lights; the lamp-posts were not on.

The movie feeling genre was definitely surrealism. Almost, apocalyptic (and we did pass a theatre on about 23rd Street screening the re-released Apocalypse Now film). Here are 2 scenes that felt surreal, from a uniquely NY perspective:

We decided to take a taxi away from the WTC site. Close to the site, there was a taxi parked with the “on duty” light on, but the driver seemed oblivious to our desire to enter the cab. At that point an African –American fellow on the corner, who seemed like a kind of a very confident, all-knowing character said to us: “The cabbie’s on duty all right. He just can’t take his eyes off of the site.”

So, we entered the taxi and the cabbie, whose name was Martinez Santiago from Domican Republic, turned to us and simply said: “Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”

Now comes the core of the scene, when another taxi, in a sea of yellow gypsies, nearly cuts us off, and we sidle up to that other taxi at the red light. Our driver lowers his window, and we brace for a stream of obscenities. And the driver calmly says to other driver, in a deeply Hispanic accent: “You gotta slow down. We gotta be quieter for the people. No horns. Didn’t you hear about what happened at the WTC?” This is NYC?! Such a polite cabbie?!

-Second surreal scene:
It was in the dark, with very sharp images and shadows thrown by the makeshift lights:

Every vehicle and individual to come back from the actual WTC area through the police cordoned perimiter was greeted, first by cheery young female volunteers offering bottles of sports drinks and sandwiches, and then by waves of applause from all of the onlookers. Weary police, dressed in blue coveralls with NYPD stamped on their backs, dragging their dusty, dirty legs and shirts towards the “T.H.Q.,” the “Temporary HeadQuarters” was applauded. Cops applauded in NYC?!

A funny moment: A worker in the front passenger seat of a Verizon truck accepted a bottle and a sandwich, then, hearing the applause, suddenly acted like he was a winning prizefighter or an actor completing a theatrical triumph, and held his fists up to his sides, with a big grin.

Just before we left the city, at about 11:00 at night, I bought the early edition of the next day’s newspaper (something I’ve experienced only in NY. I love that aspect of NY!). Another guy buying the paper: “Yeah, I been buyin’ the papeh every day since this happened. I don’t read ‘em. I can’t. The pictures are too much. But I’m buyin’ ‘em to keep ‘em for the future.”

Only on the way home did I realize why I had been so angry and upset since the gathering in Memorial Park earlier in the day and why I had to go to NYC: I was grieving! Wasn’t ready even for the prayers which I myself offered to those at the local gathering: Prayers of healing. I felt and still feel fragmented in a deep way. I feel grief and anger.

The headline of the paper I bought (The NY Post) had one word on it: “HEROES.” Referring to the fallen firemen and police and other relief workers. “But,” I yelled silently to myself, “they’re missing and presumed dead!” The terrorists used airplanes full of civilians as weapons of mass destruction!

And I recalled a conversation with a friend in the Nyack Clergy Association in the gazebo of Memorial Park just before I left. He told me that he had earlier spoken to the father of a twenty-something in his congregation who works at the WTC and hasn’t been heard from since the tragedy. The father said:

“If my son is in jail, I’ll go get him out.
If he’s injured, I’ll bring him to a hospital.
If he’s dead, I’ll bury him.
But this? Where is he?
And what do I do?”

No one wonder I’m grieving. No wonder we are all grieving.

I must conclude with hope.

Two notes of hope.

The first is literally a note of hope: It was tacked up to the inside of the gazebo at Memorial Park and is very appropriate for Rosh HaShanah. It said: “We will eliminate terrorism when we eliminate hate from our own hearts.”

The second is that I heard that the CEO of the company which owns the WTC, said he plans to rebuild.

Let’s end now, not merely with a moment of silence, but with silent prayers for the dead, for the missing, for the families affected, for the relief workers, for the mayor, and for all of us.

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