NEW YORK (Dec. 23)
Usually dedicated to recently deceased loved ones, services at the Wall Street Synagogue marking the completion of studying a Talmud section are moving under any circumstances.
But last week’s ceremony was even more poignant because it was dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The gesture was particularly appropriate: The Orthodox synagogue, located just four blocks from Ground Zero, lost several congregants in the attacks. The synagogue also has close relations with its next-door neighbor, a firehouse that lost four men in the attacks.
At the Dec. 17 service, attended by 30 men in the tiny synagogue, the last few lines of the tract, Berachos, were read and discussed.
Shalom Berger, who read the conclusion of Tractate Berachos, said he was glad the service was dedicated to the attack victims.
“We smelled the smells from 9-11 every day since that time and it hangs over us a great deal,” he said. “I think it added an extra dimension to this siyum,” as the service was called.
In addition to backing the synagogue, Sandler also supported several other causes, including Jewish federations, the American Jewish Committee and the Rainforest Foundation.
“Chaim Shlomo breathed philanthropy and lived for philanthropy,” said Rabbi Meyer Hager, who leads the small shul.
But perhaps Sandler’s strongest devotion was to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, an organization that combined his love of music with his ardent support of Israel.
“It was his life’s struggle to see that all Jews, especially in Israel, have access to the finest music,” Hager said.
The synagogue also lost Jeffrey Chernoff and Thomas Glasser from Sandler O’Neill and William Spitz and David T. Weiss of the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, who were all financial supporters of the shul.
The congregation also lost the son of Sheldon Rosenberg, one of its members.
Hager says he had had a special fondness for the Twin Towers since 1981, when he held a ceremony to make a “birkas hachama” on the center’s observation deck.
Birkas hachama is a blessing made when the sunrise, sun, moon and planets are aligned in exactly the same position they were believed to be in at the time of Creation. Such a celestial alignment happens every 28 years.
“It was felt that it has more meaning when you’re close to the sun,” Hager said, explaining his decision to hold the birkas hachama service atop the towering World Trade Center.
Hager also used to conduct a menorah-lighting ceremony each year in the lobby of Two World Trade Center.
On Sept. 11, Hager was standing outside — soon after morning services had ended — when the first plane hit.
When the first tower collapsed, “the whole street became full of ashes and it was like a snow, exactly like a snow,” Hager said.
Throngs were already streaming past the synagogue, and many had already come in to use the telephone and bathrooms.
Hager, who had pre-existing respiratory problems, found it difficult to breathe, so he began walking away from the site, leaving the shul unlocked.
Many people also came to the synagogue that morning to pray, until the lights went out and people had to leave.
The synagogue itself remained intact, though it couldn’t function because it lacked electricity and phone service.
Despite the difficulties, the rabbi was determined to hold Shabbat services for congregants who lived across the street.
“Friday night we didn’t even try” to hold services, Hager said, “because there were no lights. But Saturday morning there’s some natural light upstairs, so we decided we would have a minyan.”
Rosh Hashanah was more difficult.
“People had bought seats and were counting on us,” Hager said. Con Edison, the local electric company, hooked up a generator so the shul could hold services — not just for Rosh Hashanah, but until regular electrical service could be restored.
Since the attacks, attendance at daily services has risen by about 20 percent, Hager said.
Despite the memorial services, the rabbi said he does not yet feel a sense of closure about the tragedy of Sept. 11.
“It’s hard to have closure when people are not found,” Hager said, “but it’s part of the mourning process.”
The lines of Talmud that Berger read at the service seem particularly meaningful after Sept. 11, Hager said.
According to Hager, one of the lines can be interpreted to say that those who study Torah will rebuild society and bring peace.
“That is relevant to the situation that confronts us down here,” he said. “We hope that there will be rebuilding of the society, both spiritually, emotionally and physically.”