In Manhattan Before, During, and After “Nine-Eleven”
Reflections On Our Generation’s Call To War
by Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen
Congregation Beth El of Manhattan
Congregation Beth El of Manhattan is the only Messianic Jewish synagogue having been in Manhattan before, during, and after the “911” attacks of 2001. I have been its rabbi all that time, both living and working in Manhattan, and it seems now fifteen years past the moment, there might be some value in my offering some record of my experience for the heart and soul of our Movement to process as we move further into the third Millennium of the Messiah’s message.
FROM PEACETIME BACK INTO WARTIME
In 2001, our Messianic synagogue in New York City was enjoying its early eighth year of ministry in the capital of the Jewish world outside Israel. September 11th was like any other Tuesday. I was going to work early, to prepare for our weekly Tuesday evening Scripture study and prayer meeting we affectionately call, “T.n.T.” – an acronym for “Torah (Teaching) and T’filah (Prayer). Outside my bedroom window was an exceptionally beautiful blue sky. I was in my family’s home in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, getting ready to go to my synagogue’s office in The Empire State Building – a thirty minute commute of shuttle bus, subway, and walk to the southwest of our apartment – when our home phone rang. A member of our congregation’s Va’ad (Board of Elders & Deacons), said to my wife, Debi – “The rabbi’s not going to his office today. Turn on ‘New York One.’” New York One is the signature local television news channel for New York City.
I sat down on end of the bed with Debi and turned on the bedroom television as our congregant gave her more details: a jet had crashed into one tower of The World Trade Center. No one was sure yet if it was an accident or a deliberate act. My wife and I sat down to watch, when out of a corner of the television screen, another jet appeared – and we sat in stupefied silence as the second jet impacted the remaining tower in a mini-nova of flame, glass, metal, and ruined humanity.
My wife turned to me and asked, “What do you think is happening?”
My response was, “We are under attack.”
The atmosphere – literal and figurative – in Manhattan for the following day and days was unimaginable. Our apartment was north along the East River on Manhattan’s eastern coastline – and despite the fact the wind on 11 September was mercifully blowing to the South, carrying the bulk of the choking dust cloud into the harbor, we could for many days afterwards smell the burnt human flesh in any breezes drifting north, and in the fine sediment settling on windows, plants, and balcony furniture – making cleaning one’s home an implicit act of kever adam – burial of a person – because of the ashes of the victims mingled with the dust.
The responses of all sectors of humanity varied as greatly as humankind does, itself. Some people rushing in to help; others rushing in for brief “photo-ops” of themselves helping, and then flying back to from wherever they came, to publish the photos of themselves as boost-material for their ministry newsletters; skilled counselors offering their services gratis to the abyss of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brewing with every passing minute; people of faith seeking to bring their faith messages to the affected; and some incomprehensibly planning to “take advantage of this great opportunity for the Gospel.” I actually received such a phone call, inviting me to recruit my synagogue members to aid in such an exploitive reaction to the “opportunity.” Hearing the words physically nauseated me. I declined.
All kinds of words spoken about the event: soberingly, the only two voices speaking often about the evil of the victims rather than the perpetrators were the Islamic groups sympathetic to the mass-murderers, and certain American evangelicals. I heard a lot of “New York is Babylon” speeches I had not heard since the heyday of Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth back in the 1970’s. It was not American Christendom’s finest moment. One midwestern American interviewed on-camera actually said, “Good on ’em. Maybe now they (New Yorkers) won’t be so uppity, but be ‘just plain folks’ like the rest of us.” The image of the hijab-clad Arab woman in Ramallah dancing in the street with joy at the news of the Towers’ destruction mingles in my memory with the “good on ’em” intra-American response. Not the American Bread-Basket’s finest day, either.
I got phone calls from congregants ranging from faith-filled defiance to petrified fear. People afraid to go to their offices in Midtown: people determined to go to their offices, even in likely target-buildings like my own office in the Empire State Building. Kids like my two very young sons having nightmares, and asking the most heart-wrenching questions sitting on our balcony; and asking of any low-flying plane they saw, “Abba, is that plane going to hurt us?” I watched The Empire State Building turned into a fortress with entrance procedures like The White House, and for a season, visiting my office became for my congregants like trying to see The President of The United States. Barricades, metal detectors, bomb dogs, double photo ID checks, armed guards visibly on vigil everywhere – all to meet with your rabbi about your child’s Bat Mitzvah, participate in music rehearsal, get marriage counseling – or just chat.
A KADDISH TOO LARGE FOR ANY ONE SERVICE
Our Shabbat service on September 15, 2001 was surreal.
I handed over as much of the service as I could to the veterans in our congregation, among whom at the time were a general in the Air Force Reserves, an ex-Navy “Seal,” a former Army sniper, and a few other ex-servicemen. Since I had never been in uniform nor faced hostile fire, and since it seemed clear our Armed Forces and Intelligence Services were going to be facing a long season of danger-filled action in response to all this – it simply did not feel proper to me that I lead the post-911 service, when our congregation held men and women who had actually served. It felt so odd to feel so far out of the loop, and raised my appreciation for our veterans to a higher level than it already was – and I was already one of those Dad’s who made sure his sons heard me say “thank you” to any genuine veteran we met. I am honored now to see my eldest son serving in the Israel Defense Forces – he now wears a uniform and serves his country. This is the world we inhabit. There are people out there who want to erase us and our civilization: we need to take their open declaration of war seriously.
When we did Kaddish – I wept on the bima for the first time in the history of our synagogue – and my two sons, then aged 7 and 9 – saw me cry for the first time in their lives. After the service, my eldest asked me why I had cried. I told him part of the truth – so many people dying this way is so very, very sad.” I held back the second part of the answer from his too-young mind: I knew this was just the beginning – and many, many good men and women would be going go into harm’s way to keep us safe: and many would not return or return whole.
My synagogue looked to me as their rabbi for some sense of the future.
One lady called me in a panic, unable to stop crying and unable to work in her regular Manhattan office – hiding in a branch office in the northern suburbs. The questions came flying with staccato regularity: would we be staying in the city openly targeted for destruction? Would Beth El of Manhattan (New York) become Beth El of Manhattan (Kansas)?
It has always been my way, when any strong wind is blowing, to plant my feet and hunker down into stability until I know where the wind comes from, and where it is trying to push me. I have taught this discipline to my congregants.
After much prayer and consideration – it seemed clear: our calling had not changed.
Without a change of marching orders – you stand your post. (Isaiah 30:16, Philippians 3:15-16)
The House of Israel still lived massively in Manhattan, and needed and still needs to be reached. It seemed to me, my intrepid and courageous wife, and all in my shul, that we were to stand our ground, and be ourselves in this season as in any other. Our driving maxim – the engraved quote from George Washington on the south side of Manhattan’s Washington Square Arch echoing Isaiah 62:10 – “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest may repair,” seemed even more relevant in an age with religious madness and idiocy taking center stage.
My eldest son went to high school across the street from Ground Zero. While it was delightful to see our son admitted to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan – “the Harvard of American public high schools” – the massive crater next door to his school was a sobering presence during his entire secondary education. My youngest son at this writing now goes to college right next door to the “9-11” site. We, as a family of Israelis since 1992, are perhaps more used to the idea of people wanting us dead than the average American might have been in 2001 – but it was nor is a light thing to send our son off to school in the direction of a site we knew was, and is the target of determined efforts of mass-murder. The newly-built skyscraper replacing the Twin Towers has been nicknamed the “Bomb-Me-First Tower” by cynics/realists who believe the Islamic Fundamentalist War against the iconic sites in our civilization will never be a one-event matter. It shortly became clear, we were living the reality every Israeli father, mother, and child lives every day – and has been living for a long time. After a while, having a target on you becomes part of a new normal, in New York, in Washington DC, in the State of Israel – and across the last few years, again for Jews anywhere Jews are clearly seen and known to be Jews. It is becoming increasingly clear in these years after “9-11” that all non-Islamic Westerners are now de facto Israelis. The fury Israel tasted first is now shared by all who will not submit to the radical jihadis agenda for hegemony. We are facing new Nazis. We are at war to preserve civilization from tyranny, no less than we were in 1942.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTERWARDS
In the years since “911” our synagogue has survived – and has been reported upon in all the New York Television Media, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report; and Israel’s largest Hebrew-language newspaper, Yediot Achronot did a two-full page article with photos because in 2002 our synagogue was directly the target of two Muslim terrorist threats: and until 2009, our congregation was the only synagogue in all five boroughs of New York City to receive such directly targeted threats. The owners of the building in which we met in 2002 were told, “Get rid of the Jews, or else.” Unfathomably, they said, “O.k.” and demanded that we leave. Happily, that closure led us to better and better sites: and our location has been for the last decade a miracle site on Park Avenue in the center of Manhattan’s cathedral district in the Upper East Side.
The aftermath of “911” is with us still. In Manhattan before, during, and after The Twin Towers fell, we all feel their absence whenever the southern Manhattan skyline is in view. In movies and tv shows made in New York before September 2001, we see them still. I took my son during his grade school years down for a tour of the The Towers when he had to do a report on them for his middle school history class. We went to the top floor, mere months before “9/11.” The memory is etched forever, and the report is still in our school years memory box. It still taxes my heart to imagine some poor father and son in the top floor observation deck for a school report on the day the two jets flew in – those who were by mere serendipity in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why do we stay?
Why do Israelis stay in Israel?
This is where we are called.
There is a famous story about a messenger for a King who needed to take dispatches through a dangerous war zone. His wife pleaded with him not to go on the mission, saying, “There is little chance you will survive.” The messenger’s response is said to have been, “It is necessary that I go: it is not necessary that I live.” I am as loathe to lose my life as any sane soul – but I will not be moved off my place-of-calling by mere threats of harm. As Kevin Costner’s character said in Open Range, “There are things that tear at a man’s soul worse than dying.”
It is necessary (Isaiah 6:8, Romans 10:14) that Beth El of Manhattan be in Manhattan for the House of Israel still living and working in Manhattan.
The truths about the One God and His One Messiah do not lose their John 17:3 value or necessity because evil or insane people want literally to obliterate the city where the population still needs to be served by the message.
The Creator, as described in the prophetically affirmed (Deuteronomy 18:21-22) revelation of the Two Testaments of Scripture, is the One and Only God – and Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth is the One Messiah. These two truths are essentials in the path that leads to eternal life. (Psalm 2, John 17:3) Neither the God of the Scriptures, nor we as a faith community, have as our agenda that the whole world become Jewish or be conquered by a Jewish military force; or that we Jews to cease being Jews and convert to a different religion called, Christianity: it is His clearly-stated desire that men and women everywhere accept the government of truth over their individual hearts. (Luke 15:10) That is the core-agenda. Cultural issues are merely collateral. Truth is the heart. Love is the means. The sword is always and ever for defense only, never to advance an agenda.
And so – we stay.
As Beth El of Manhattan is just past its twenty-third anniversary of August 27, 2016, all of us who are part of it are mindful that there are no guarantees following truth will be either easy or safe – only right. And so around here, we say to one another, not only “Shalom!” (Peace!), but often we say, “Kadima!” (Forward!) It is a command given on the field of battle by Israeli unit commanders to their troops. It does not mean “There is safety or benefit before us.” It means, “The direction we must go is before us – so, let’s go there and do what needs to be done.” Someone with a penchant for quoting Scripture might put it this way: “Strength and courage, for the sake of our People, and the cities of our God. And may The Lord do as seems good to Him.” (1Chronicles 19:13)
Kadima – and may it all be for shalom. Shanah tovah.
Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen
8 September 2016