9/11 And The Kindness Of Strangers


On Sept. 11, as I watched a plane hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower, my first thoughts were for my loved ones, who live and work in New York, and for the people stuck in the buildings.

Stunned by the extent of the tragedy, only later did I call my travel agent to see whether the flight my husband and I were scheduled to fly on two days later had been cancelled.

Given the calamity, it felt incredibly self-centered to worry about something as mundane as a flight, but my husband was supposed to lead High Holy Day services at a New York synagogue the next week and we didn’t want to let down the congregation.

And to be honest, I was desperate to get out of Israel for a couple of weeks. The second intifada had been raging in Israel, our home, for almost a year, and I needed to get out.

We were told that El Al, our airline from Tel Aviv to London, was flying and that if we didn’t use our tickets we wouldn’t receive a refund. American Airlines (our London to New York leg) didn’t have an answer, even though American airspace was reportedly off-limits.

We realized we might get stuck in London, so before we left Israel we searched for a British Jewish family to contact, just in case. We asked our friends for leads, and within a short time we had the name and phone number of a family in northwest London.

It was reassuring to know that, as always, the world Jewish community was our safety net. Thanks to the global Jewish family, I’ve eaten kosher home-cooked meals in Rome and Addis Ababa.

The ripples of 9/11 engulfed us as soon as we disembarked in London. The AA section of the airport was all but deserted.

My husband and I had sufficient cash, spoke fluent English and had a place to crash if necessary. One of our fellow passengers had a month-old baby and insufficient supplies, while another, an Israeli teenager, didn’t speak a word of English and had no money.

Stranded at Heathrow, the dozen or so passengers with us from Tel Aviv began making phone calls. Within an hour someone had secured a van to take us to the Jewish enclave of Golders Green and accommodations for anyone in need of it.

My husband and I stayed with the British family that had graciously agreed to take us in. They made sure we had a bite to eat before bidding us goodnight. The van was scheduled to pick us up at 4 a.m., to take us back to the airport.

It was 4:45 on a Friday morning and we, Sabbath observers, felt the approach of Shabbat. The line of stranded American Airlines passengers seemed a mile long. Most were told they had no chance of leaving Europe that day but those with compelling reasons to fly were given some hope.

Finally, we were told we could fly to Chicago, where the mother of a Jewish friend would give us sanctuary. Suddenly, a flight opened to Miami and we grabbed it.

Just after taking our seats, some kosher food, wrapped in plastic, tossed from behind, literally fell into our laps.

“It’s going to be a long flight and I thought you might get hungry,” an agreeable young religious man said from two rows back. He pointed to my husband’s kipa and we knew the global Jewish family was in control.

This young man also insisted on finding Shabbat accommodations for the other Jewish passengers lucky enough to get seats on the flight. When we arrived in Miami there was a taxi waiting for us and it took us, the young man, and another passenger to Hollywood.

We were dropped off at a spacious home just prior to the start of Shabbat. The woman of the house made sure my husband’s shirt was pressed. The Shabbat table groaned with food. We and other 9/11 “refugees” were treated like royalty.

“It’s our daughter’s 21st birthday and she’s stuck in Manhattan,” our host said sadly. “If she can’t be with us this Shabbos, we’re glad you are.”

On Saturday night our hosts shared an exclusive AA phone number and we miraculously secured seats to Boston, and then onto Newark, where we managed to grab the last rental car at the airport.

Flying into Newark, we saw the smoke rising from the site of Twin Towers. The only sound on the plane was the flight attendants’ weeping.

The terror I’d hoped to escape was right in front of me, and I knew that New Yorkers now felt just as vulnerable as Israelis do.

It was a comfort then, and it still is, to know that the global Jewish community is there to catch us. Just in case.

Michele Chabin reports from Israel for The Jewish Week.