Monday, September 05, 2011

9/11 - Its Heroes and its Lessons

There is an unbelievably poignant film produced in 2002 by Aryeh Gelbard presenting a Jewish perspective on 9/11. It was apparently just uploaded to the internet. It is a few days before the tenth anniversary of that day in 2001 and I thought that this would be an appropriate time to focus on it.

That was a day to remember for me. There are few like it - where the images are so seared into my memory. In my lifetime, I can remember but a few days with such clarity. I will always remember – as will most Americans my age or older - where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated; when the first moon walk took place; where the space shuttle Challenger exploded killing all aboard; and when two jumbo jets plowed into the World Trade Center.

I usually listened to the radio at work but on that fateful day, I happened to have a small TV on when I saw the two Today Show hosts talking about a plane crashing into one of the towers. The assumption at first was that a small plane had somehow accidentally crashed into the building. But when a second plane hit the second tower all doubt was removed. I stopped what I was doing and was glued to the TV most of the rest of that day - watching events unfold in New York.

Cameras were focused on all parts of the building as the flames intensified and grew larger. One could see people trapped on the floors above the flames jumping out of windows to their death. And then the two towers came tumbling down. It was surreal. I remember recoiling when I saw it happen and then recoiling each time the TV network replayed it that day.

I’m sure that most people had a similar reaction. This event dominated the airwaves for many days afterward and stories of heroism started to emerge. There were many such stories. The stories of Jews involved in heroism is the subject of the film - which has a decidedly Charedi spin to it. It is very moving and well done.

Particularly moving is the description by his brother of the heroism of one religious Jew - Abe Zelmanowitz. It was an act of pure selflessness toward a fellow human being - a non Jew who was a paraplegic. He stayed with him to make sure he got out safely. It cost Abe his life. There are no words to describe the Kiddush HaShem made that day by this Jew. I cannot imagine the grief his family must have suffered at the loss. But perhaps they can take some solace from the fact that he will forever be considered a hero by all civilized people.

Another poignant scene is Rabbi Yisroel Reisman’s description of how the non Jewish members of the FDNY responded to the an invitation to attend his Shul on Shabbos soon after 9/11. It was issued so that they could express their gratitude publicly to them. They accepted the invitation. That too was a Kiddush HaShem.

These first responders were treated like the heros they are. And they responded the way you would expect a decent person to respond - moved to tears by the expression of Hakaras HaTov.

I am not surprised by this. Americans are a good people – a Medina Shel Chesed. What is unfortunate and not so surprising to me is that members of his Shul – and perhaps Rabbi Reisman himself thought such a response was so extraordinary… as though only Jews could react with such dignity. As though non Jews in America are supposed to hate us. How far this is from the truth!

They cried! This is America. Why did it have to take a 9/11 for them to realize this? It is time for the Charedi world to realize this once and for all – and stop those foolish and misguided rabbis who preach hating the Goy!

Finally there is the Kiddush HaShem made by Hatzalah that day. Hatzalah volunteer EMT Chaskel Bennet describes their involvement along with other emergency medical responders who all cooperated in serving one goal – saving the lives of everyone without regard to their religion. As a Charedi Jew with a trim beard, wearing a big velvet Kipa, and wearing his Tziztis out - there was no mistaking who he was. He and others from Hatzalah made a Kiddush HaShem that day.

At the end of the film Rabbi Nosson Scherman, founder and general editor ArtScroll/ Mesorah publications expresses his appreciation to then mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani who urged the people of New York not to be defeated by what happened and urged them to get on with their lives - and not let the terrorists win.

However, as poignant as this film is I must object to the way it opened. In describing the twin towers Rabbi Scherman used imagery evoking the biblical description of the Tower of Babel which commentators tell us to be an evil attempt by mankind to defy heaven. He also compared the modern attitude about the twin towers to the early 20th century attitude about the Titanic. That it was indestructible. They said about the Titanic that God Himself could not sink it. We all know what happened on its maiden voyage. It sank.

I find this attitude common among the Charedi narrative. They see the world outside themselves as Godless - that only Judaism could recognize that there is a God in the world that in an instant can destroy a Titanic or a World Trade Center.

This is not the American thought process at all. It may have been that way to a few then and it may be that way to a few now. But the majority of Americans understand that there is a God in the world. I doubt that anyone ever said about the World Trade Center that God Himself couldn’t knock it down. It is really troubling when a man with a long beard wearing a big black Kipa and a Kapoteh comes out and reinforces this negative stereotype of the non Jew. It feeds into an arrogance about ourselves – a sort of ‘them versus us’. The Goyim are a bunch of atheist non believers and that only we Jews understand that God controls the world.

For me this aspect of the film detracted from it in a condescending way. When will the Charedi mind realize that most Americans are not atheists? …that they believe there is a God who controls the world. And once and for all teach their young to understand that - and respect it! Why does everything with them have to be - them versus us?! If anything happened on 9/11 it was a sense of Achdus, not only among Jews but among all fellow citizens. That day we were all Americans. We all flew the flag that day in our hearts and in our minds. We were one nation under God.

We religious Jews try and look for meaning in all that happens in the world. This is no less is true of 9/11. This event happened during the month Ellul. This is the month that the gates of heaven open up for Teshuva.

I often have expressed my views opposing attempts to connect world events to ourselves as having a particular message. To blame this or that fault in our conduct for an event that happens to others. I find it long on Chutzpah and short on truly knowing the mind of God. I prefer the Chafetz Chaim’s approach. He saw a tragedy far away in Japan and said we need to do Teshuva in a general way.

And yet I can’t help looking at this film and wondering if it is precisely the negative attitude about non Jews that needed tweaking. If this film says anything at all it says that.