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What We’ve Learned

Community leaders discuss the impact and lessons of Sept. 11.

by Wendy J. Madnick

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast Region of the Orthodox Union, was in Toronto for a cousin's wedding. He had just dropped off his daughter, a Fordham University law student, at the airport about an hour before for her 8 a.m. flight home to New York and was listening to the radio on his way back to the hotel.

Suddenly, a reporter broke in with news that an airplane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, followed by reports of problems with other planes. Eisenberg calculated the departure and arrival times for his daughter's flight and realized she could very well be on one of those planes. He began to pray, both for her safety and that his wife was still asleep.

"I got back to the hotel and my wife had the television on and was hardly breathing. We couldn't find out anything, we couldn't get through," he recalled. It would be several hours before his daughter finally reached him to tell him she was safe.

While there were many similar stories of near misses -- too many -- more than 3,000 ended tragically. For the families and friends of those lost, time stopped that day. But even for those not personally connected to the victims, one thing is certain: we all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. The lessons we learned in the ensuing year continue to color our actions and our thoughts, and probably will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.

On a national level, the main lessons learned concerned security. In a recent interview, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that all internal security organizations, particularly the FBI, have since shifted their focus to fighting terrorism and that, while the removal of the Taliban from power and the blows against Al Qaida's infrastructure have diminished their threat, improving America's security remains a major concern.

"The risk that our country faces, a country that has [before Sept. 11] enjoyed virtual immunity from attacks on our own shores, is that time and technology are not on America's side," Fleischer said. "Time and technology are on the side of the terrorists. Terrorists, over time, could get access to technology, principally chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and they have shown a desire to use the weapons they obtain to inflict maximum harm. Sept. 11 showed that, and that's why President Bush has taken the steps he's taken to protect our country from terrorists who obtain these weapons."

Hand in hand with Bush's continued military actions (including a possible attack on Iraq) has been a growing interest in issues of faith. In this vein, Fleischer announced Bush will hold a meeting this Friday with a group of interfaith leaders at the White House during which he will designate Sept. 6-8 as national days of prayer and remembrance, "to honor those who were lost, to pray for those who grieve and to give thanks for God's blessings."

For some, the lessons of Sept. 11 have been spiritual and emotional. In the days following the tragedies, we were reminded by our leaders in the Jewish community to hug our children and our partners, pray for the families of the victims and feel grateful for the blessings in our lives. Other lessons have been more concrete: to be aware of our surroundings, to plan on spending an extra hour waiting in line at the airport. But in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was hard to foresee that the world would ever return to normal.

Transplanted New Yorkers took some of the hardest blows on the day of -- and days following -- Sept. 11.

"The terror attacks were personal for every American, but for New Yorkers who lived there and worked there, it was even more shocking," said Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles. "There was a sense of disbelief that permeated the day. Even looking at images on television, it all seemed kind of surreal. I think it took a long time for people to accept it really happened."

Orenstein grew up in New York; her sister, a law professor at The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Yeshiva University, works just 2.5 miles from the World Trade Center. Their grandfather once had an office in the Twin Towers and both women knew many people who worked in and around the buildings.

"My first cousin worked at Cantor Fitzgerald," Orenstein said. "She had just decided to start working flex-time, and the day she picked as her day off was Tuesday. It was only by chance she wasn't there. I had another friend who worked in the building next to the Twin Towers, and after he helped evacuate the building he was able to get out."

For Orenstein, the near-misses underscored her belief in the miraculous.

"The thing I was struck by was the sense of grace. There was this tremendous tragedy, but also tremendous chesed [lovingkindness]. The idea that the planes were relatively empty, that on one of the planes the passengers managed to divert [it] so as not to cause even more tragedy, that so many people were evacuated and that even with people who did not make it some got to say goodbye on their cell phones ... that was God's grace. And there were so many people reaching out to help. There was a human response of real giving that happened that day," she said.

Rabbi David Woznica, executive vice president of Jewish affairs for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, had just returned to Southern California in August of 2001 after living for 13 years in New York City, where he had been director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. Five days after the tragedies, he flew back to conduct High Holiday services there and to be with the people of his adopted city.

"The most vivid memory I had was walking on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and getting to the fire station on East 85th Street," he said. "Normally the gates were closed, but the gates were open, even though it was late at night, and there were pictures there of five men, five firefighters who had died. The pictures were surrounded by literally thousands of letters from schoolchildren and hundreds of burning candles, and there were firefighters milling about along with local residents. Everyone was in this ashen state and there was almost no talking.

"That was the strange thing; the city was so silent. And everywhere you went, there were photocopied pictures of people with something like, 'WTC, 92nd floor, please call, I love her very much.' In those first few days, there was the assumption that there would be survivors. You couldn't walk by without reading them and then you would just get chills."

Woznica said he feared it might be too early to know the real lessons of Sept. 11.

"I guess one lesson is the reminder that evil exists," he said. "It was also a lesson in how unbelievably generous Americans are, and not just with money. There are people who are willing to risk their lives for others and we see them every day. Sometimes they wear a uniform and sometimes they don't."

For other L.A. residents, Sept. 11 is a reminder of our vulnerability, a word which was rarely used in concert with the word "American" before the terror attacks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was at Heathrow Airport in London on his way to Israel when he noticed people gathered around a television monitor and shouting.

"It was right after the first attack," he said. "Then we saw the second attack on the south tower, and it immediately occurred to me that this had never happened in American history. It was, in a way, much worse than Pearl Harbor, because it was an attack on a major city plus an attempt on Washington, D.C., I thought, this will change America forever. American history will be known as before Sept. 11 and after Sept. 11."

Despite the attacks, Hier said he is confident that Americans and American Jews are safer now than before Sept. 11 because of heightened sensitivity to security issues. But he voiced his disappointment that world religious leaders, particularly Muslim clerics, have avoided addressing the key issue: Islamic fundamentalism.

"Not enough time has been devoted by the media and politicians, and not enough resources have been devoted to involving all the world's religious leaders in defeating the scourge of this terrorism at its roots, which is the teaching of this [suicide attacks] as a legitimate form of martyrdom and a way to heaven," Hier said. "Here we are, a year later, and the Muslim clerics and the United Nations have not come out in force against this. Why does the United Nations think that nudging only works over territories?"

LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish, commanding officer of operations for the West Bureau, was busy in the hours after the incidents in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania making sure that if Los Angeles was indeed a target, the city was as prepared as possible to survive (and if possible prevent) another attack.

"Historically, we know with these terrorists that if at first they don't succeed, they try, try again," Kalish said. "We saw that with the World Trade Center. Like New York, Los Angeles is a target-rich environment and the airport is obviously a top priority, so we added additional deployment that remains to this day."

Like Hier, Kalish feels that the city has become safer.

"The world has changed. I think we have learned we are vulnerable, but I think because of this, officers are much more cognizant of security issues than in the past," Kalish said.

Kalish said he feels the most important lesson to be learned from the events of Sept. 11 is the need to balance vigilance with the hallmarks of American democracy, including liberty and tolerance.

"Almost half the population [of Los Angeles] is foreign-born, and so it is important that we respect one another and are tolerant of one another. We have to be very careful that in our war on terrorism, we do not confuse the terrorists with other populations. Despite the fact that there is certainly the potential for terrorism to strike anywhere, we must never let it compromise our way of life and our freedoms," he said.

The need within the Los Angeles Jewish community to respond to the tragedies resulted in one of the strongest years for The Federation. According to Federation President John Fishel, the Federation has raised $54 million in pledges so far this year, with over $500,000 in unsolicited giving from last fiscal year and this fiscal year being set aside for victims of Sept. 11.

"From a fundraising standpoint, the last year has been extraordinary, especially given the malaise in our economy," Fishel said. "People responded extremely generously and enabled us to help the victims."

A year after the tragedies, the media is full of stories of healing and recovery. Among Jewish community leaders, some insist that while healing is necessary, it is equally essential that we do not lessen the impact of Sept. 11. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple notes that "too often, Americans forget the past, and Jews despair of the future, especially in Israel. That is a terrible mistake. The memorial, a serious memorial, of Sept. 11 is important, and the ability for Jews to get together and acknowledge we have a future is also very important.

"Sept. 11 has enlarged the community of people who care passionately about politics, especially foreign policy, and has reawakened us to the reality that America is not an isolated place in the world," Wolpe said. "We may be bounded by oceans, but we are not above the tides of time. What happens to the world happens to us. We need to care about the rest of the world and continue to pay close attention to it."

Overall, the mood in Los Angeles seems to be one of optimism for the future. Perhaps because we were not directly affected, it is easier to distance ourselves from the horrors and hold onto the hope.

Orenstein said she, like many other rabbis this year, will be addressing the shadow of Sept. 11 in her High Holiday sermons (see related story, page 39).

"I'm planning to say something about how to say goodbye to the past year. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has a High Holiday prayer in which he says to 'let the curses of the old year end and the blessings of the new year begin' and that really resonates strongly for people right now," said Orenstein. "Sept. 11 is very hard for people to close the book on, but part of the High Holidays is to turn to a new page on which you can start fresh."

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