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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik: Reflection On 9/11

There is an inscription on the grave of an architect, Christopher Wren, which reads, "If you want to know about me, don't look down; look around and see what I have done."  If you want to know about Ground Zero, I suggest that you not just examine the site, but see what the families of lost loved ones have done.

John Jr. (L) and Joe Vigiano (R), photo courtesy of the Vigiano family.
John Jr. (L), a firefighter and Joe Vigiano (R), a policeman...sons of retired New York City firefighter John Vigiano Sr. a firefighter. Photo courtesy Vigiano family.

I think of John Vigiano, Sr. who lost two sons, a firefighter and a policeman.  When I asked John, if he still believed in God, he said, "Rabbi, God did not murder my sons, terrorists did."  John, a loving father and family person now travels to Iraq and Afghanistan to give strength and support to the soldiers there.  Here is someone who lost so much, but yet with his scars and scratches he still loves so much.

I remember our first Chanukah at Ground Zero.  Laura Lehrfeld who had never met her father Eric came with her mother Hayley to hang a card on the Menorah for her dad.  I married Eric and Hayley Lehfeld, and I remember how much they were looking forward to their first child.  The Lehrfelds now live inNew Jerseyand are building a new life for themselves.

Fire gear of deceased firefighter John Ielpi
Fire gear of deceased firefighter John Ielpi sits on display at Tribute Center. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I think of Lee Ielpi who lost his son Jonathan and spent days searching and finally found him.  Lee did not succumb to passive resignation but began again to help found The Tribute Center near Ground Zero so that people from everywhere could learn more of the lives lost on the horrific day.  I remember he showed me a prayer shawl worn by one of the fallen on the day of his Bar Mitzvah.  His family presented it to The Tribute Center because they saw Judaism as a living tradition that would continue to survive in spite of the suffering.

I will never forget the selfless dedication of the local carpenters union which was concerned that the Menorah was only nine feet high and the Christmas tree was twenty feet high.  The union comprised of carpenters mostly non-Jewish worked during their free time to build a platform so that the symbols of two traditions would be equal to one another.

I recall our first Passover at Ground Zero.  Traditionally at the Seder, we have young people searching for the hidden matzah and then reward them for their effort.  As we sat together at Ground Zero, we saw family members still searching for remains of their loved ones.  Thus we changed our traditional custom and joined them in looking for the hidden remains of loved ones.  We did not need to taste bitter herbs that Passover; we felt the sadness around us.

One of the most meaningful traditions of religion is naming children after those no longer living.  As a Chaplain of FDNY, I received telephone calls from families expecting a new born.  They wanted to know the first names of first responders so that they could honor their memory with this special 9/11 naming ceremony. I offer the following words of blessing at such a ceremony, "May the branches be as strong as the roots."  I would the give a brief background of the "roots" of the special hero as we honored him/her by bestowing this name on this newly arrived child.

The Torah tells us that Adam and Eve having lost a child, decided to have another child named Seth when they left the Garden of Eden.  Perhaps it was our tradition teaching us that while many of us are given the opportunity to begin life, there are those who courageously must begin again.

The miracle of 9/11 is not just the rebuilding of the site, but the rebirth of those whose lives were so torn on that tragic day.  On this tenth anniversary, let us not just remember that horrible day, but also how people who hurt so deeply find strength to write a new chapter of life.

These heroes reminded us of the prophetic words of Ernest Hemingway, "The world breaks everyone, but somehow there are those who remain strong in the broken places."

Those who were taken on 9/11 no longer live with us but on this tenth anniversary, we can proudly say, they live within us.


Rabbi Joseph Potasnik is the Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis and Chaplain,  Fire Department of New York.  We encourage you to express your opinions below.

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