Remember Sept. 11 the Jewish Way

I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.

Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.

I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.

Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.

Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.

Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.

When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.

One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.

Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.

I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.

Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.

Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.

The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.

In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.

May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).

Joel Haber (