By CH (COL) Jacob Goldstein, USAR Ret
Call of Duty
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on my way to a meeting. I saw a lot of traffic, which is typical of New York. I entered my office. The director of our operations looked out the window, and he remarked that he thought one of the buildings from the World Trade Center was burning. Suddenly, we started hearing lots of sirens. I went to look out the window, and sure enough, One World Trade Center was on fire. As I was watching the scene, out of the corner of my left eye I saw a plane swoop down, hook, and slam into Two World Trade Center in a massive fireball. It was so shocking; all I said was “Wow!”
Within a few minutes, my beeper went off—it was command headquarters. At that time, I was the State Chaplain for the New York Army National Guard. I called HQ and the OPCENT commander told me, “New York City’s under attack right now—you need to go to the World Trade Center immediately.”
Ground Zero instantly became the mission of the Army National Guard, and as the senior Guard chaplain in New York, I became the Chief Chaplain of Ground Zero. It was a huge responsibility.
When I first arrived at Ground Zero, a little more than an hour after the second attack, it was a sight to see. Tower II had just collapsed. Because of all the smoke, it was so dark it literally felt like nighttime.
I’m not the kind of person that gets overwhelmed very quickly. But when I arrived I had to sit down on the steps of Brooks Brothers, which was behind me on the corner of Church Street and Liberty. Everything around the World Trade Center had been blown out from the force of the explosion. The medics went into Brooks Brothers and turned it into a temporary morgue for the first few days. To say that the first 24 hours were wild is an understatement.
As we settled in, I tried to figure out what my role was; I needed to figure out what we would be doing, where we would set ourselves up and how. I also wondered how I would get hold of my chaplains. By some miracle, that afternoon, two of the chaplains that worked for me showed up: Chaplain Larry Bazer, who is now the senior Jewish chaplain in the National Guard Bureau, came with his unit, along with another (non-Jewish) chaplain and his unit. We had a meeting and then I began directing my chaplains where they should go.
The scene in front of me was literally the fog of war. Three blocks away the sun was shining but at Ground Zero it was dark as night and things were completely mixed up. People were shouting different orders. It was a mess.
Amid this heavy atmosphere, we ran a very tightship in terms of our chaplains and chaplain assistants. We organized a spot at Ground Zero that we called the religious corner, where I assigned a chaplain or chaplain assistant for people who wanted to talk. It became a focal point and a safe space for people. Everyone who was involved with Ground Zero—the firefighters, police officers, first responders, soldiers, myself included—had known people in those buildings. There were firefighters whose fathers, brothers, and sons had died in the attacks. So while we worked, it was with heavy hearts.
Initially, I believed they would find survivors. I had previously worked in the World Trade Center until the first bombing, in 1992. I thought that maybe a lot of people ran all the way down and hid in an air pocket somewhere, and after a day or two perhaps we’ll find survivors. But as the days passed, we all started to realize that nobody’s coming out of there. Sadly, that was the truth: No one alive was ever found at the World Trade Center after it collapsed.
I spent the next four-and-a-half months at Ground Zero, engaged in chaplaincy operations which became an integral part of what was going on. The enemy had come and gone, and we didn’t have soldiers to go fight the enemy right then. But the National Guard became heavily engaged in security for part of Lower Manhattan. Our soldiers were busily engaged.
Kaddish at Ground Zero
On Wednesday night, the day after the attack, the president addressed the nation and the world. During his speech, President Bush told the following story: Abraham Zelmanowitz was an Orthodox Jew who worked at a company in the World Trade Center. The desk next to him was occupied by someone who was quadriplegic. This man hired someone to bring him to work every day. Every day when he arrived, Zelmanowitz would look after his co-worker throughout the day. He’d make sure he got to the bathroom and wheeled him to wherever he needed to go. The president made it clear that this co-worker was not of the same skin color, nor the same faith as the Jewish employee. But that didn’t matter, because this Jewish person’s faith dictated that he had to look out for his friend.
When the planes hit, Zelmanowitz told the man’s helper to leave, because, as he said, “I have to carry my friend down 29 flights.” As everybody else ran for their lives, the president said that this man didn’t think twice about remaining with his friend. The last time they were seen alive, the Jewish man was carrying his friend down the steps. And that’s what the president highlighted in his talk that night.
Eventually Mr. Zelmanowitz’s remains were found, as were the remains of his friend, and soon afterwards was the time for the one-month anniversary and memorial. Unfortunately, access to Ground Zero was heavily restricted, even to families of the deceased. The Zelmanowitz family was troubled that they had not yet gotten a chance to pay their respects. They desperately wanted to say kaddish at the site and were distraught because no one would let them through.
I went to the powers that be, including the police chaplain, and at first the answer was no, as it would be disruptive to the work going on. Now, for most faiths, services are usually during the day, but Jews can pray at any time. So I told them, “We can do this at night and we’ll bring just 10 people.” They finally agreed to it.
When we met up, it was a pretty cold night. I led the group down to Ground Zero and we stood on Broadway. I had a few soldiers with me. Everybody who was at Ground Zero understood that this was the family of a victim. All the first responders, Jews and non-Jews, took off their helmets, held them to their chest over their heart, and bowed their heads as we walked. We prayed the evening service in the street a block away from the pile, as you couldn’t get any closer without safety gear.
We stood there as the family members said kaddish, and that’s when I collapsed. I think that moment was my breaking point. We’d been through so much and that was probably the first time I had taken a deep breath. Still, I reassured everyone around me that I was alright.
Chaplain, Keep Those Prayers Coming!
On Friday, mere days after the attack, President Bush came to Ground Zero. As the command chaplain, I was asked to lead both the opening and closing prayers for the president. Afterward, we were told that the president was going to shake hands with all the people in uniform. We lined up according to rank and introduced ourselves. The president shook my hand and said to me, “Thank you, Chaplain, for your prayer.” I replied, “Mr. President, in our tradition we have a prayer that we say for a leader of a country.” President Bush bowed his head as I said the blessing, “Blessed is the one who grants His glory to flesh and blood.” He then thanked me, and gave me a gift—a pair of cufflinks, which I still have. As I backed away, he said, “Chaplain, keep those prayers coming. We all need it!”
Rosh Hashanah at Ground Zero
So much happened in those first few days. One of my main concerns was that Rosh Hashanah was fast approaching. Would we be able to organize services in the area? Much of the power was still out. We soon came up with a plan: We would hold services in a designated area that was bigger than the religious corner. We planned to blow shofar and recite some prayers. The nearby Wall Street Synagogue had no lights, but with my wife’s and Con-Edison’s help, we were able to get a generator for Rosh Hashanah. Although there was no air conditioning, the shul would be open regardless.
A lot of people came to services. But of course, the whole area was one big construction site, and there was lots of noise constantly. I wondered how I would be able to blow shofar with all that noise. I initially approached my commander, and then I hunted down the guy who owned the ground over there. I told him when we were holding services and asked if it would be possible to get the area quiet for 10 or 15 minutes? He said he would do it. Then he remarked that perhaps some of his guys that are working there are Jewish. I said, “Tell them to walk over.”
At the appointed time, all the equipment stopped and there was utter silence. The stillness had a void; especially considering the aureal tumult that had been continuous throughout the week. I blew the shofar in that silence, and believe me, that was very special. Later, I saw a picture that someone had snapped of me on the front page of The New York Times with the shofar in my hands. It was a very meaningful Rosh Hashanah.
Thanks to the generosity of the synagogue’s Rabbi Hager, the Wall Street Synagogue was opened for Yom Kippur as well. Later, the military presented Rabbi Hager with a plaque to thank him for his incredible support of our guys.
A Sukkah at Ground Zero
Pretty soon, Sukkot arrived. We were fortunate to have the most interesting sukkah I’d ever had at Ground Zero: I commandeered a two-and-a-half ton Army truck, our engineers tracked down some plywood, and we went down to Battery Park to cut down some branches for schach. The sukkah had to be built on the bed of the truck, because I knew we would be asked to move it multiple times. At Ground Zero, equipment was constantly moved around, so nothing could be stationary. The sukkah must have moved at least once or twice every day.
Over Sukkot we fed lots of people that were involved with the mission down there, both Jews and non-Jews. I also blessed lulav and etrog with anyone who wanted to. Later, we found another place where we were able to put up a sukkah in a more permanent fashion. So we ended up having two sukkahs—the mobile truck-sukkah at Ground Zero that moved around, and the larger stationary one further away.
9/11 and the Holocaust
For anybody who worked down there, it was no different than going to war. And I’ve been to a lot of places in combat, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. When people that are close to you are killed, or if you see a lot of death, a person naturally has to take a step backward. One needs to slow down a little bit and take stock of what’s going on; to take a moment to figure out what’s truly important. Seeing all this gives you a whole different perspective on life. It changes you. People coming from Ground Zero had the same thing, some had it worse, some less. We had chaplain teams that would talk to our soldiers who were struggling. We saw soldiers on the edge, and we talked to soldiers who had blank stares. They were taken off site and given medical assistance.
A fascinating shift happened to me personally through my experience at Ground Zero. My father and mother had survived the Nazis. They had been in the camps. I always wondered but could never bring myself to ask: How could they have survived mentally, knowing there were gas chambers? I never understood how a person could mentally deal with that. Even if you see pictures or hear stories, it’s hard to understand. Human nature is such that you have to touch something, smell something, see something, or hear it. And if you don’t do these things, you remain detached from it. But for the first time in my life, I began to understand my parents: Around Ground Zero there was so much ash on the ground, and I understood that this ash was no different than the ash in a concentration camp. There were humans that had been vaporized in this place. My parents had lived through that on a daily basis. But you keep moving despite it all, and now I understood that.
It was the first time that I connected the dots in that way, and I hope it’s the last time. But this is why I’m troubled that they’ve turned Ground Zero into a business operation— they put up towers, a little memorial park, a pool; it makes people feel good. That is not what it should be about. I think of the sanctity of the place, and I’m afraid it’s lacking that.
“This Was My Parade”
During that period, the country came together in a way I had never seen before and have not seen since. American flags sprouted all over the country. If you drove along West Street which runs along the Hudson River and leads to Ground Zero, there were thousands of people, and I mean thousands, who lined up every morning and afternoon, and throughout the day. They would stand there, waving American flags, and every time a police car or a military vehicle went by, everyone would cheer them on. It was like a victory parade.
On the third or fourth morning, I was driving in a Hummer with my assistant, Sergeant Chris Santiago. All of a sudden, he jumped up and opened up the upper hatch, and stood ramrod straight out in the open. I told him, “Hey! Get back down here. We’ll be photographed and the next thing you know, it won’t be good for anybody.” He refused. I wasn’t about to start arguing but it was very uncharacteristic of him. I knew Santiago to be a good soldier.
When we got to our destination, I said, “Tell me, what was going on?” He replied, “I’ll tell you what happened: I served in Vietnam. When I came back as a 20-year-old kid, I was called a baby killer. People spat at me. But when I saw all these people cheering, I felt that this was finally my parade; my sacrifice was finally recognized.” I told him, “Chris, I got it.” And I didn’t say another word to him about it. It was a very powerful moment.
While I still mourn for the losses of the 2,977 people killed in the 9/11 attacks, I long for the unbelievable national unity we felt during those long days and weeks. I pray that we return to that unity, without being driven in that direction by tragedy.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior