On Monday, September 12th, YU students held a meaningful symposium in the Rubin Shul to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 150 people attended the event, which featured a panel of three speakers. The event was jointly organized by YCSA, SCWSC, YSU and SSYMS. While two of the three speakers were directly affected by the attacks themselves, the third was a rabbi who was involved with the painful process of assisting with agunot cases after the events.
The first speaker, Mr. Ira Herenstein, was in his office on the eleventh floor of the North Tower. After the first plane hit, he and the crowd of frightened workers were directed to the thirtieth floor. He recalled being told by security personnel that “there was a little plane that crashed into the building,” and that after the site was mostly cleaned up they could return to the building. But something, Mr. Herenstein said, still frightened him. Going against given instructions, he and several others hurried down a stairwell, encountering firemen heading up into the smoke. “You could see it in their eyes,” he said. “They knew they were not going to a good place.”
While Mr. Herenstein and his three sons, who had been working in Manhattan on that fateful day, all made it home safely, he confessed that he “still think[s] about this all the time.” He still wonders, “What happened to the hundred or so people on the thirtieth floor? Why me? What got me thinking, ‘I had to get out of there?’”
Next to share his own moving experience was Mr. Sam Benson, who in September of 2001 was working in emergency management for Mayor Giuliani. He distinctly recalled how at 8:46 AM, everyone in the office heard a rumble and turned in shock to a “big oval hole in the side of the building. We didn’t know what it was. It didn’t make sense.”
He forcibly pulled a young coworker away from the window, where she stood paralyzed, watching people leaping from the high floors of the South Tower above the smoke and flames. As a disaster expert, Benson and his colleagues had to predict a death toll in the heat of the crisis. It accounted for the total number of employees in the World Trade Center, and then some. As a paramedic, Benson braced himself to turn back and run into the destruction to do as much as he could to help. During a terrifying “moment of clarity,” he said, he felt “more afraid of being trapped under the rubble and getting pinned than being killed. When I said shema then, it was with a different kavanah that I had never had before, nor had since.”
Though not a live witness to the attacks, Rabbi Willig experienced their social and religious ramifications as a member of the Beth Din of America. He handled the cases of eight agunot whose husbands went missing. In one case, he traced a man’s electronic trail using his subway card; in another case, he interviewed the last witness of a man waiting for an elevator to an upper floor of one of the towers. Rabbi Willig grew emotional as he recollected a “dear, dear talmid, who I mourn for to this day,” whose remains—just a few shards of bone—were collected seven months after the tragedy.
Rabbi Willig closed by connecting the tragic events of 9/11 with the hope that we can invest in the coming year through prayer. The idea of both tragedy and hope is one that encapsulates the legacy of 9/11, an event which our student body commemorated as a community.