Menu JTA Search

Jews Join Thousands in Prayer As New Yorkers Begin Healing

Eli Wohl had just finished morning prayers at his yeshiva when people ran in to say the World Trade Center was on

fire.

Wohl, 22, went outside to watch — the avenue where the Brooklyn yeshiva stands had enjoyed an unobstructed view of the twin towers — and saw the second plane hit Sept. 11

Twelve days later, Wohl and several of his friends– with peyos, or sidelocks, and traditional black dress — were among the thousands of New Yorkers at Yankee Stadium for a multifaith “Prayer for America.”

“I came basically to show we’re all together,” he said. “Chasidic Jews, Jewish, we’re all humans.”

Part-rally, part-memorial service, part-worship service and part-concert, the Sunday afternoon gathering drew a diverse and multiracial crowd. The lineup, emceed by talk show host and actress Oprah Winfrey, included politicians, rabbis, priests, Muslim, Protestant and Sikh clergy and such singers as Placido Domingo, Bette Midler and the Boys and Girls Choirs of Harlem.

Among the rabbis to speak and offer prayers were Joseph Potasnik, Jewish chaplain to the New York Fire Department; Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan; Marc Gellman, president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and Joy Levitt, director of programming for the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

Lookstein blew a shofar several times, after saying, “Today we sound the shofar in pain and anguish. With God’s help, we will again sound it in happiness and joy.”

Schneier began his speech with the first few lines of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, and Gellman spoke of the talmudic teaching that to destroy one person is to destroy an entire world, and that to save one person is to save an entire world.

It is important, Gellman said, not to numb ourselves to the event by viewing the victims as statistics, but instead to remember that each person had his or her own stories.

“On that day 6,000 people did not die,” Gellman said. “On that day one person died 6,000 times.”

As people flowed into the stadium, some wearing shirts emblazoned with photos of family members lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Red Cross volunteers distributed roses, American flags and packets of tissues.

One of those volunteers was Rabbi Stephen Roberts, chair of New York’s Red Cross Spiritual Care Committee and the Jewish chaplain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Roberts has been working virtually nonstop since the attack, setting up “compassion centers,” offering counseling and helping to obtain free High Holidays tickets for Jews affected by the attack.

However, he did take off for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat, he said.

“All I did during services was cry,” he said. “Going to services was like going to a gas station — I’ve been filling up spiritually.”

Standing outside the stadium waiting to get in, Ethan Isenberg, 25, said he was there “to express my solidarity with the American people.”

He had been planning to spend the day expressing a different kind of solidarity at a national rally for Israel, but that rally was canceled shortly after the attacks.

Isenberg was still shaken from discovering that a woman who lived down the hall from him, in an Upper West Side apartment building, had been killed in the attack.

“This definitely gives a new immediacy to the words, ‘Who will live and who will die,’ ” in the High Holidays liturgy, he said grimly.

Despite the widespread fear of flying, Isenberg said he flew to Los Angeles last week to spend Rosh Hashanah with family members.

He was scared, he said, but “it was like the vigilance I have when I get on a bus in Jerusalem,” a place he visits at least once a year.

Coming out of the Yankee Stadium service, which she described as “inspiring,” Sandi DeGeorge, 28, said it was her first chance to “be with people” since Sept. 11, because she had been traveling for work and missed Rosh Hashanah services.

“I hope someone from the terrorist groups were watching, so they could see they didn’t win,” said DeGeorge, of Westchester County in suburban New York.

Her cousin, Charley Gabarini, a New York firefighter, is missing, and the family “didn’t know when to tell” Gabarini’s young children and “when to give up hope.”

Wearing matching Star of David pendants, Barbara Lass and her mother, Dorothy Lass, both of Manhattan, also praised the service.

“I never thought I’d be a flag waver,” Barbara Lass said. “I protested Vietnam, and I’m up there waving flags now.”

For Rosh Hashanah, she said, she lit an extra yarhzeit candle, and is planning to do the same for Yom Kippur.

The tragedy “intensified my kavanah” during Rosh Hashanah, she said, using the Hebrew word for purposefulness during prayer.

Her friend, Rhoda Gruen, praised the service for being “a bringing together of people of all faiths, which I hope persists for New York and the nation.”

“I was thinking of all the broken glass at the World Trade Center, which evoked memories of Kristallnacht,” Gruen said, referring to the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish-owned shops and set synagogues ablaze across Germany and Austria.

“I hope the world doesn’t come to as dark a time as then,” she said.

The attack was also conjuring up World War II memories for Dorothy Lass, who remembered Pearl Harbor and losing friends in the war.

Lass, who worked as a pharmacist during the war, recalled doctors frequently having her prepare prescriptions of sedatives for them to bring to women who had just learned their sons were killed.

“The thought of having to go through that again is terrifying,” Lass said.

NEXT STORY