A Letter from Rabbi David Ellenson, President, HUC-JIR
September 28, 2001Dear HUC-JIR Family and Friends:
11 Tishri 5762
The world as we know it has been irrevocably transformed by the horrific events of September 11th. For the rest of our lives, that morning where unspeakable evil and terror were unleashed upon humanity will provide a landmark whereby we will date and measure our lives. There are large issues of politics and public policy that surely must be addressed, and the responsibility an institution such as ours must now confront as it trains Jewish leaders demands serious and thoughtful dialogue. However, I hope you will excuse me if on this occasion I do not respond to such questions, but rather reflect on the past weeks’ events in a personal and somewhat lengthy manner.
On the morning of September 11th, I had just arrived at HUC-JIR and was preparing for a meeting of the Reform Leadership Council to be held at our New York campus. I was in a particularly buoyant mood after several invigorating days. On Sunday I had participated in the rededication services held at Central Synagogue in New York. Thousands of people were in attendance, and it was a time of great communal celebration. Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki were among those featured in the ceremony, and each spoke beautifully. Little did I realize at that moment how much I was destined to see them on television screens in the days ahead.
On Monday I met with several people, addressed the Executive Committee of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and that night I had dinner with friends. I was in no way prepared for what was to unfold.
When I was first informed that morning that a World Trade Center Tower was on fire because a plane had crashed into the building, I was shocked and went outside with my colleagues and our students and staff to see the smoke and fire that was blazing. As I was watching this scene, a report came that the second tower - which was not within my view - had also been hit by a second plane. I was still not able to fathom what was occurring. I turned to a friend and said that the odds had to be infinitesimal that two such accidents could have occurred in a single day within moments of one another!
I think my initial reaction was not an unusual one for persons raised in our culture and nation. However, the innocence as well as naiveté such a reaction displays have receded, and the words of Genesis, “The inclination of the heart of humankind is evil from its youth,” now ring in my mind with greater power than do any unadulterated declarations that affirm the innate goodness of humanity.
When students and colleagues returned to the building, we knew that we could not conduct “business as usual.” A service was immediately arranged and everyone in the building assembled together in the HUC Synagogue. Our Provost Norman Cohen read Psalms and spoke, and Cantor Israel Goldstein chanted several prayers. Rabbi Eric Yoffie also spoke briefly and offered an English reading of a Psalm, and as did our CCAR President Rabbi Martin Weiner. At this point, Sylvia Posner informed the community that the Pentagon had been attacked, and only then did I begin to grasp fully the enormity of the crime that was unfolding. I said several words and concluded the service with the chanting of El Malei Rachamim, the traditional prayer recited in memory of the dead.
Immediately, a television set was set up in the President’s Office of the New York School and food was provided for all who remained in the building. At that moment, none of us had any precise notion of the danger that was posed, and it was decided that the best course of action we could take - in light of the fact that transportation and in many cases telephone communication had in effect been suspended throughout New York - was to keep everyone safely together in the building.
I am proud to report that the faculty and students responded magnificently to the challenge posed by that moment. Faculty members counseled students who were engaged in their own intense reactions to the events of the previous several hours, and students and staff supported one another with sensitivity and love. Rabbi Nancy Wiener of our New York faculty not only offered her own counseling expertise to staff and students, but she also went to the local hospitals, and along with a number of our students who were under her direction, provided exceptional comfort to countless people who were reeling from the shock of what had occurred. Other students immediately volunteered to donate blood, and still others engaged in appropriate study of Torah texts under the direction of Professors Eugene Borowitz and Leonard Kravitz. In an ironic but comforting moment, students on our Jerusalem campus telephoned to express their concern about friends and staff in New York!
In light of the meeting that had been scheduled that morning, the College-Institute was fortunate that the lay leadership of the Reform Movement was also present in New York. I will not forget the sight of Russell Silverman embracing his daughter Shira and offering his support to several other students who were clearly in distress.
While Burton Lehman would never permit me to say what I am now about to write, I want to tell you that the Chairman of our Board of Governors is an exceptional human being. Leaders are truly steeled and forged in the crucible of crisis, and I have now seen Burt test his mettle and exercise his leadership in two demanding situations. Last month, he accompanied me to Israel immediately after the tragic bombing of the Pizzeria in Jerusalem, and his presence on the Jerusalem campus and his interactions with our students there reassured and calmed them. However, his actions on September 11th on our New York campus were exemplary beyond measure. Burt displayed an exceptional concern for the safety and well being of each of our students, and I was moved by the solicitous and caring manner with which he spoke to our students. One student - separated from her baby who was home for the day in Brooklyn - was justifiably distraught and Burt calmly and deliberately reassured her that the College-Institute would do everything possible to reunite her with her child by the afternoon. Later that day, Burt accompanied a number of our students as he and they attempted to offer donations of blood for the anticipated wounded. We at HUC-JIR are blessed to have a person of his character as Chairman of our Board of Governors.
By the end of the day, everyone returned - many by foot - to their homes in the City and elsewhere, and the scene in Manhattan was surreal. Troops were everywhere to be seen in the streets, and any number of avenues were cordoned off. Smoke filled the air, and there was an eerie quiet that marked the streets. Telephone service was irregular, though I was able to speak with our New York Dean Aaron Panken several times that evening. NYU cancelled classes, and Mayor Giuliani asked that only essential personnel venture south of Fourteenth Street. As the College-Institute is located on Fourth Street, we closed our building for the next two days.
On Friday, our New York campus was reopened and Dean Panken conducted Shaharit morning services for over forty students, faculty, and staff who were present. His own words were measured, and he led an open discussion where all members of the community were able to voice their feelings about what had transpired. He and Rabbi Nancy Wiener then aided the many students who were about to leave for their High Holiday pulpits, and the guidance and counsel they provided helped our students greatly as countless students in New York - and on our other campuses as well - prepared to go out to their pulpits and offer comfort to their own communities during the days ahead.
During this entire period, our students in New York and elsewhere have been actively involved - as they had been on Tuesday - in volunteer support efforts that have sprung up both in New York and throughout the country. They have surely demonstrated their goodness and leadership at this time, and they have worked in streets and in hospitals, as well as in synagogues ministering to the needs of people. Indeed, one of the remarkable developments of the past weeks has been witnessing how many people have turned to synagogues and churches for community and support during these days.
Not one congregation in New York City remained personally untouched by this event, and every rabbinic colleague with whom I spoke on the Wednesday after the attack had several congregants who were missing. If there was ever any doubt that the synagogue holds a special place and that rabbis and other Jewish professionals occupy a unique role in the life of our people, it was surely dispelled by the events and reactions of that week. Persons flocked to temples throughout Manhattan, and the crowds in attendance grew nightly.
During these days, I have come - as have millions of others - to a renewed appreciation of the fragility of life. During that first week after the attack I was unable to carry on my normal schedule of work, and I remained separated by thousands of miles from my family in Los Angeles for five days. When compared to the tragedy of death that has struck thousands, such separation is little more than a minor inconvenience. However, I found myself in strong need of linkage to others, and I reached out and received the support and contact only family and friends can provide.
While I hesitate to single out one such contact, I would mention one visit that was particularly affecting. On that Thursday, I had the occasion to visit with Susan Gross, a former confirmand from my days as a pulpit rabbi in Port Washington, New York. She recently gave birth to a baby boy, and I went that afternoon to see Susan and her two young children. While I spoke with Susan and her children, her young baby Peter fell asleep in my arms. The simple nature of such a gentle moment was itself extraordinarily life-affirming given the circumstances of the week.
As I have thought about this moment with Susan and her family as well as all my interactions over the past two weeks, I have been reminded of words written by Rabbi Leo Baeck over fifty years ago. Rabbi Baeck was of course the great leader of the Jewish people in Germany during our darkest hour, and he himself was ultimately imprisoned in Thereisenstadt during World War II. Three of his sisters died in that camp, but Rabbi Baeck survived and he blessed the Jewish people after the war with the gift of a remarkable book entitled This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence. This work is a sensitive spiritual accounting of the course and meaning of Jewish history authored by a man who was personally responsible for saving and touching the lives of thousands of Christians and Jews, including my own teacher Fritz Bamberger.
At the conclusion of this religious classic, Rabbi Baeck offered the surprising claim that giving birth and nurturing a child is the greatest act of faith a person can perform. In so doing, he echoed the words of the ancient midrashist, who, when asked, “What is eternal love?” responded by stating, “the love of a baby.” As I have pondered these words found in our tradition, I realize that nothing more profound could be stated. The decision to raise a child affirms the belief that each human being is created in the image of a good God, and indicates that “the responsibility to those who follow after us is included in the responsibility to ourselves.” A child is a statement of confidence in the present and a declaration of hope for the future.
When Rabbi Baeck was later asked how he could retain such faith in view of what he had experienced, he responded simply, “We Jews have ancient eyes.” Our people have known the pain and suffering of centuries, and ours is in many ways a lachrymose history. Yet, we have never abandoned our hope that the world is a good place, and that one day it will be better. This conviction has guided our people throughout time. We will not abandon this commitment because of the sorrow and pain the entire world has endured during this past month, and we will reaffirm the moral and spiritual tasks God has assigned us. At this time of year, where our people has just completed the sober mood imposed by the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe), we will yet resolve to affirm life by observing z’man simhateinu, the time of joy that marks Sukkot.
Metals are melted when placed in the furnace, and their essence is revealed. During these days, our students, staff, and alumni have all demonstrated through their deeds who they are. They are truly klei kodesh, who have comforted the afflicted, provided hope where there is despair, and fostered community where there is division. We are fortunate to be part of such a school. May the events of these past weeks strengthen our resolve, and may the privilege of educating leaders who possess knowledge and wisdom, gentleness and love, continue to be granted us.
To each and every one of you, Jackie and I say, “L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teihateimu - may you be written and inscribed for a good year.” B’virkat hag sameah - with warmest best wishes for a joyous holiday season, I am,
Rabbi David Ellenson
Most recent update 11 October 2001
Copyright © 2001 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion