In the Suburbs: A time for remembrance

Twenty years ago, with my eyes barely dry from witnessing some of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 first hand, we had reached the High Holy Days, which began the evening of Sept. 17, and tried to make sense of an event that turned our world and our lives upside down permanently.

That Monday evening, I stopped at Zaro’s, my favorite bakery in Grand Central, to pick up my regular High Holy Day order of two round challahs — one with raisins and the other plain — before commuting back to Fairfield. But nothing about the station or my commute was the same. It was like a war zone, flooded with soldiers and commuters, who seemed edgy and drained. The evening seemed almost surreal.

Throughout my pre-holiday train ride home, I couldn’t help reflecting and replaying the scenario from just under a week before on the day of Sept. 11. That morning, I had arrived in our PR offices on lower Park Avenue and within an hour, my colleagues and I had witnessed planes flying into the north and south towers, which ultimately collapsed into clouds of rubble and an inferno around 10:30 a.m.

We saw the replay of a third jet flying into The Pentagon a little after 9 a.m. and learned of the brave, heroic passengers on a fourth jet who screamed, “Let’s Roll!” and stormed the cockpit to crash the plane in a field in Shanksville, Penn.

We spent the better part of the day trapped in our offices and comforting frantic or hysterical co-workers. Finally, about 4 p.m. we were allowed to leave our offices on lower Park Avenue. As I left the building to walk to Grand Central, I joined an army of probably a thousand people, many covered in soot from the two collapsed World Trade Center towers. Their silence was deafening. The train ride home that day was a mix of confusion and chaos and the sounds of muffled sobs mixed with extremely quiet conversation. It was a time of prayer and reverence.

On my pre-High Holy Day ride home a week later, I caught up with some of The New York Times vignettes of the nearly 3,000 victims of the World Trade Center attacks. By the time I arrived in Fairfield, I was wiping tears away again.

When I arrived home, my wife, older daughter and my then son-in-law greeted me with hugs and a handshake, we put pieces of the Challah on a plate, poured glasses of wine and said the traditional prayers as we wished each other a sweet and peaceful year. How ironic those wishes were just a week after the 9/11 tragedy.

In reviewing a short piece from Timeanddate.com, a website that helped me capture the actual date of Rosh Hashana 2001, I found a wonderful explanation of Rosh Hashana that truly captured my feelings on that particular holiday after 9/11. “Rosh Hashana is a time of judgment and remembrance, on which God reviews and judges a person’s deeds in the past year. It is a time of prayer and penitence. All debts from the past year are supposed to be settled before Rosh Hashana.”

Each sermon during those very different High Holy Days reflected the tragedy and horrors of the terrorist attacks on our nation. Throughout our services, tears flowed freely and many of my fellow congregants spoke in hushed tones of friends and co-workers who had escaped or were lost in the towers.

Now 20 years later, our High Holy Days started just five days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy. Again, it is very unusual how close together these events are.

And I am sure that many sermons during the one or two days that we Jews celebrate these holidays will have some focus on 9/11. Because, like the Holocaust, we must never forget what happened to our country and more than 3,000 innocent people on a glorious, sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago.

And what is even harder for me is knowing that none of my students will probably know about the events of Sept. 11 because they weren’t born and probably will have no reason to acknowledge or understand what happened. But I believe they should understand.

And I will remember and reflect during these holidays 20 years later and pray that this kind of a tragedy never reaches our soil again. And I know that others who experienced the events of 9/11 either personally or from a nearby Manhattan location like me will have the same prayer. And all we can do is hope that something like this never happens again.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.