Sept. 11 was a watershed event in American history. Every decent person felt shock and revulsion to the very core. But human nature cannot maintain such a heightened sense of trauma indefinitely — life goes on. Six months later, The Journal interviewed several local Jews and discovered how even now, the Sept. 11 attacks continue to touch their lives, in ways large and small.
Sharon Mendel, a native New Yorker who has lived in Los Angeles “for too long,” said that the attacks “absolutely changed me. It made every moment count more than it had in the past, realizing that life could be taken instantaneously.” Mendel, an actress, had been slowly edging closer to traditional Jewish observance over a period of several years, and eventually became shomer Shabbat last year. But after Sept. 11, she felt added urgency to her spiritual growth.
As a result, she became more consistent in waking up early to daven the morning “Shacahrit” prayers. “You can’t fight evil with evil,” she said. “God needs our prayers, and we need to pray in a meaningful way, not just saying things by rote.” Mendel also tried to live up to other Torah values, such as being more tolerant of other people and greeting people with a pleasant demeanor. And, whereas prior to Sept. 11 a day off from work might have meant taking in a movie, she now tries to use that time to find a Torah class.
“All the other things we worried about are nothing compared to what is happening now,” Mendel added. “You’re defeated if you give up optimism, but you also have to put in the effort. It’s not enough to be a better person, you have to be a better Jew.”
Although they have never met, Tom Eisenstadt, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, agrees. The Calabasas-based family man and founding member of The Calabasas Shul felt a shift in priorities after Sept. 11. Some things seemed less important: He slacked off on his previously strict exercise regimen and even, to some extent, his diet.
Eisenstadt admits to being frustrated by this lessening of resolve to exercise, and is trying to get it back. He attributes this in part to increasing stress at work, since his business is affected by the slumping economy. However, like Mendel, he has been more motivated in spiritual matters, and has also been more consistent in davening each morning. “Relationships are all about communication, and the more you communicate the better the relationship,” he says. “Davening is a way to building that relationship with God.”
People could choose to look at Sept. 11 in one of two ways, Eisenstadt said: Either God was involved or He was not. “As Jews, we learn that everything God does is for the good, even if we can’t understand it. Understanding that somewhere, somehow, this was good makes it easier to live with this horrific tragedy.”
Very shortly after Eisenstadt and his wife moved into their new home last October, they hosted a class by Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange, on Jewish responses to Sept. 11. Czapnik, who taught several well-attended classes on the subject, noted, “People wanted understanding, and still do, but I don’t see people wearing Sept. 11 on their sleeves. As Americans it has been hard for us to grasp the concept of pure evil. We always want to understand the other perspective, but the Torah teaches us that there is such a thing as raw evil, as well as objective good. People can hear this now easier than before, that certain things are simply transcendent.”
Czapnik noted that Sept. 11 helped many people appreciate what Israel has been enduring for so long. “Just as Americans don’t want to negotiate with Al Qaeda, they can more easily see why Israel doesn’t want to negotiate with the PLO.”
Many local Jews found that Sept. 11 fostered an even stronger alliance with Israel. Ira Mehlman, a Marina del Rey public relations consultant, ramped up his involvement with the Israel Emergency Alliance (IEA), a media watchdog group that also runs the web site StandWithUs.com. Mehlman, already a member of the IEA, became a board member after Sept. 11, and worked to help organize the Solidarity Walk for Israel held last December, as well as other IEA activities.
“I’m trying to educate myself as best as possible regarding threats to Israel and the U.S.,” Mehlman said. “The alliance tries to confront anti-Israel activism on college campuses and in the media, and we’ve had growing visibility and impact.” Mehlman views his work with the IEA as an important mitzvah. “I find this more meaningful than if I just picked another ritual to practice, even though the rituals have their own value.”
A native New Yorker, Mehlman knows of several people who died in the attacks; they were from his old neighborhood of Neponsit. At one time, his mother worked on the 86th floor of one of the towers. “I think everyone was affected in some way,” he said. Mehlman plans a solidarity visit to Israel over Pesach, where he will meet up with family members, some of whom live in Israel.
Family, and the need to feel closely connected to them, was probably the biggest reaction that Denise Koek, an actress and writer, had after the attacks. Koek said, “I had a realization that I wanted to be with my family more than ever, especially my two children. It just felt more pressing. If after a week or so I don’t hear from my brothers or father, who live out of town, I call them or start e-mailing like crazy.” She also felt more motivated to move ahead in her career, trying, as she said, “to seize the day.”
Koek also stepped up her involvement in her synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita. Before Sept. 11, Koek and her family may have attended services monthly; now it’s at least double that. “It feels like a tonic to go to shul, and to have that sense of community there,” she observed. Koek joined the membership committee, where she helps plan recruitment activities, and also applied her comedy-writing skills for the shul’s Purim program.
Immediately after the attacks, nearly all shuls were packed to capacity, but that ebbed in most cases. However, Koek observed that people seem quicker to come to shul now even after vague threats, such as when the FBI issues its occasional warnings. She also credits the shul’s rabbi, Steven Conn, for being “really attuned to people’s more intense needs for spiritual leadership.” Overall, Koek said, “I’m sad that what happened occurred, but I’m very encouraged that more people acknowledge that there is more to life than material things, and place more emphasis on interacting with your religious community.”
Conn is still trying to nurture the closeness and strength felt so keenly among his congregants after Sept. 11. Conn said, “I do see that people still look at family in a new light, and some people have made life changes that may be subtle, but have important impact. We always think there will be tomorrow, but we don’t have forever to make our lives what we want them to be, and what God wants them to be.”
Similarly, Deborah Goldberger, a “professional volunteer” whose previous career experience included children’s television production and development, business consulting and even translating (from Arabic) for the Department of Defense, found that Sept. 11 reconfirmed her decision to retreat from the professional world in favor of being a stay-at-home mother to her 11-year-old twin daughters. In fact, at the time of the attacks, Goldberger was chaperoning her girls’ class trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Although they couldn’t fly back, they took a bus straight through for nearly 50 hours to return home, just in time for Rosh Hashana.
While trying to reassure the children (and even some of the other chaperones), Goldberger said, “I learned that I was much stronger and more independent than I thought I was. The hardest thing was worrying about being on the road over Rosh Hashana, which was a very distressing thought. All this made it clear that it was right to focus on my family, that I shouldn’t feel torn about not being so involved in the work world.”
Goldberger’s relief at arriving home just before Rosh Hashana was immense. “My Judaism grounds me,” she said, and since that time, she has lit Shabbat candles more often, and taken her family to shul more often, too. “It took a long time to recover from that trip, but it did validate my need for spirituality. It’s okay to reprioritize, and this idea has really stuck.”
Reprioritizing values, and reinforcing others, also felt urgent to Richard Fauman, an observant Jew in the television industry. On the Shabbat immediately after Sept. 11, Fauman was seized by an idea offered in shul by Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles. “He said that it was time for us to wake up to our spiritual obligations, and that we need to stay awake to respond in an appropriate and elevated fashion,” Fauman recalled.
Inspired, Fauman followed the rabbi’s advice and found a chevruta, a partner with whom he could study Torah and also foster one another’s personal growth. Fauman did this with a few different people, and would either meet or phone each of them weekly. They exchanged lists of goals in personal, spiritual and even financial areas. They checked on one another’s progress and offered encouragement when needed.
“We all had a sense of urgency and immediacy right after Sept. 11,” Fauman recalled, explaining how he and some other volunteers were able to organize the “Spiritual Responses to Sept. 11” conference in only five weeks, drawing nearly 400 participants as well as renowned speakers from around the country. Unfortunately, Fauman believes that in the past few months, he and others have been “falling back asleep” again.
“My sense is that there has been little practical action in the city as a result [of Sept. 11],” he said, and noted particular disappointment in the Orthodox community, whom he believes were among the most likely to view Sept. 11 as a wake-up call from God for enhanced spiritual development.
“Six months later, I’m fighting to regain that sense of urgency that I had before, even though I’m doing more Jewishly than ever. But I don’t think it’s enough. Each day, though, I add the prayer that Braverman suggested we say during davening: ‘Hashem, please give me the time I need to the make the changes I need to make in my life.'”