Every Person Has a Name: The Common Thread of 9/11 and Other Disasters

16 Sep

Yom Kippur/Yizkor 5782

September 16, 2021

Where were you on 9/11? For this community in Northern Virginia, I’m sure the trauma of that day is still seared in memory.  The initial disbelief, followed by utter horror. 

Twenty years ago, I lived in the New York area where I was serving in my first rabbinic pulpit, Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY. I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 when news of the first plane crashed. I heard it on the car radio on the way to work. Like so many others, I thought it must have been a small private plane that lost its way. When I got to the office, I asked my colleagues if they heard the news. They informed me that Tower 2 was hit. Then we knew. America was under attack. Soon after that the Pentagon was struck, followed the crash in Shanksville, PA. 

Serving as a rabbi in the New York area in 2001 meant that 9/11 was not a far away tragedy. It was home.

Everyone in the congregation was affected in some way.  Some lost loved ones.  Others had a near brush with death in escaping the towers. Others were running late or had dentist appointments and were supposed to be in the towers but weren’t. 

In the midst of the turmoil of the community and a sense of helplessness, I longed to do something, anything, to serve not just my congregation but the broader community. The American Red Cross put out a call for rabbis to serve as volunteer emergency clergy. I knew I had to do it. It was during my service at the Family Assistance Center in Manhattan that I witnessed the hand of God: seemingly overnight, government agencies from the state, Federal and local levels set up shop in a massive warehouse on the Hudson River so that survivors and relatives of victims could come to one place for support: unemployment checks, insurance checks, search for relatives, medical care, psychiatric counseling, pastoral counseling. Every possible service that was needed was assembled under one roof. It was awe-inspiring to witness the human capacity to do good in response to the face of evil. The operation was a communal act of love that showed each person mattered. The experience of serving as a chaplain there had a profound influence on me that laid the groundwork for me years later to move to professional chaplaincy. 

This summer, I had a visceral reminder of the family assistance center. We suffered a terrible tragedy in South Florida this past summer with the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers apartment building in Surfside. The cause was not terrorism but human negligence in the building’s construction and maintenance. Still the carnage was staggering, and the Jewish community was affected disproportionately. There too, a family assistance center was promptly set up in a nearby hotel conference room where survivors could go to find support. I had the opportunity to visit the center a few days after the collapse. There, in one room, the survivors could have one-stop shopping for all the different forms of support they needed: FEMA, insurance, Jewish Family Services, clergy. I was also deeply moved when I saw several disaster rescue personnel of the Israel Defense Forces come through the center to have some food before going back out to dig through the rubble.  I was reminded in Surfside, like in the aftermath of 9/11, that even in the midst of disaster the face of God shines through thanks to the kind acts of people.   

This summer I was reminded of another important lesson: In a mass-casualty disaster, the victims are not statistics. They are people.  9/11, Coronavirus, Surfside. Each one is different. Each had its own reasons. But no matter the circumstances, each one who died was a universe lost.  They were children, parents, siblings, spouses, friends of others. They loved and they were loved. They had names. 

When we strip away people’s names, they become “other.” Tragically, in the long history of the Jewish people we know what it’s like when we are made “other.” One of Israel’s most popular and beloved poets, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovksy, known simply as Zelda, wrote a poem widely recited on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron called, “L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, Everyone Has a Name.”

Having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, her poem was inspired by a famous midrash in Kohelet Rabbah which says that “A person is known by three names.  One that he is called by his father and mother.  One that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.”   She wrote:

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו אלהים

ונתנו לו אביו ואמו

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his father and his mother.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו

ונתן לו האריג

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by the fabric he wears.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו ההרים

ונתנו לו כתליו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו המזלות

ונתנו לו שכניו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the constellations of stars
and given to him by his neighbors.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חטאיו

ונתנה לו כמיהתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longings.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו שונאיו

ונתנה לו אהבתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חגיו

ונתנה לו מלאכתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his celebrations
and given to him by his work.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו תקופות השנה

ונתן לו עיורונו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons of the year
and given to him by his blindness.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו הים

ונתן לו מותו.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

As the poet teaches, each name represents a life, and that each life is precious. 

Each of them had a name.

In the aftermath of mass casualty disasters, media outlets often publish portraits of people who died so that readers or viewers can attempt to grasp the magnitude of the human loss lest we brush them off as statistics or collateral damage. I’ve selected a few such brief portraits from 9/11 and 9/11-adjacent deaths. With one exception, I selected profiles of Jewish victims, even as we express solidarity with our community at large.  

ALONA AVRAHAM

A 30-year-old resident of Ashdod, Israel, Avraham was on her first trip to the United States. She was traveling from Boston to Los Angeles on United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

GERALD P. FISHER

Gerald “Geep” Fisher, a consultant with the management and consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton, had come to the Pentagon to discuss methods of handling survivor benefits for armed forces staff. He lived in Potomac, Md., with his wife, Christine. He was also survived by two children from a previous marriage, his mother and a sister.

JEREMY GLICK

Glick, 31, of West Milford, N.J., called his wife, Lyz, from United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco and talked to her for 30 minutes on his cell phone. He told her that three terrorists carrying knives and telling passengers they had a bomb in a red box, had taken over the plane. His wife informed him of what had happened at the World Trade Center. Then he said that he and three or four other 6-foot-plus passengers had come up with a plan to jump the hijackers and stop them from doing whatever they had planned to do with the plane.

Investigators believe that Glick and his fellow passengers kept the plane from hitting a Washington, D.C., target, possibly the White House or Capitol. Glick was survived by his wife and then-12-week-old daughter.

So far, I’ve highlighted Jewish names from 9/11. I’d like to highlight one individual of another faith tradition. He did not die on 9/11, but on September 15, 2001. He’s not one of the 2,977 people in the official death toll of 9/11. As noted by the writer and activist Valarie Kaur, every September, a Sikh family gathers quietly at a gas station in Arizona to mourn. They remember Balbir Singh Sodhi, a kind-hearted and generous man, whom many called Uncle. He was planting flowers in front of his gas station when he was murdered by a man who called himself a patriot. With the image of Osama bin Laden’s turbaned head plastered throughout the media during those days, white supremacists carried out vicious acts of revenge violence against South Asian and Arab Americans, including Sikhs, whose men wear turbans. Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first person killed in thousands of acts of hate crimes in the aftermath of 9/11. We often associate the aftermath of 9/11 with our nation coming together as one, but that wasn’t always the case, and we need to remember that. 

In the last 18 months of COVID-19 in America, there has been a tragic link between 9/11 and COVID-19. At least 42 New York City first responders who were exposed to the toxic dust of the fallen towers, later died of COVID-19.

Michael Field arrived at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

The FDNY emergency medical technician wound up working at Ground Zero for nine months. He later suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary issues — conditions that his wife, Stacey Field, attributed to his work digging through the rubble as the rescue operation quickly turned to a long-term recovery effort.

Michael Field, who was Jewish, died on April 8, 2020 at age 59. Two weeks earlier he responded to a medical emergency at a residence where a patient had a known case of COVID-19 and had contracted the virus.

Field was among the earliest deaths of COVID-19 in New York. 

Know that each of them had a name, and more than that, each had a life.  In the words of the Talmud, each life was a an entire universe.  Each had hopes and dreams, aspirations and accomplishments, and loved ones.  As the poet Zelda reminds us each name had a life.

As we remember our loved ones during yizkor, we remember their names, and their names were windows into their souls. Everyone we remember was an entire universe. We think about special times that they spent with us and important lessons that we learned from them. Yom Kippur gives us space to mourn our departed. In doing so, this is a time to hold our living dear ones a little closer. To tell them words that matter and to strengthen our bonds one relationship at a time. L’kol ish yesh shem. Everyone has a name. Let us honor all of our departed, including those martyred on 9/11, and strive to bring love and healing into our world. May the memories of our departed be for a blessing. 

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