None of us will ever forget where we were.
I was in a meeting in a southern-facing conference room at my law office on 51st and 6th Avenue, where on a clear day you could see all the way down to the World Trade Center. And it was the clearest of fall days, with beautiful sunshine. Someone suddenly came into the conference room, telling us that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Looking up, we saw a huge plume of smoke spilling out of the first tower. We stopped the meeting but didn’t yet have an inkling that this was a terrorist attack or how the day would unfold.
After learning about the second plane and the attack on the Pentagon, the enormity of what had happened began to set in. I left the office and walked uptown to my kids’ elementary school on the Upper West Side, passing shell-shocked pedestrians and people crying on the streets. The rest of my day was spent with other school board members and administrators arranging for students to get safely home.
My children were then ages 9, 7, and 5; our youngest was not yet born. I don’t recall what I said to them (what parent had the words…), but I do remember keeping them away from the TV. Like so many of us, I knew people who died that day. Almost no community was untouched by loss.
My predecessor, Dr. John Ruskay, who led UJA’s response to the crisis, memorably said afterward: “We were there on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10.” We were ready because of the strong, interconnected network of nonprofits already in place, providing essential services on a regular basis. Those insightful words have gained added meaning in the years since. The way UJA coordinated multiple agency partners to deploy a vast array of social services, including mental health support, in the days, weeks, and months that followed became an example of what we could accomplish even in the worst of circumstances — when the disaster was our own, and we were not spared the tragedy. What we did then — working across our network to help families, survivors, and first responders — became a model of collaboration that’s guided our community through many unforeseen challenges, including these past 18 months of Covid.
In the wake of 9/11, my children’s day school fortified the front door with shatterproof glass. The fear of foreign terrorist attacks spread across the country. Increased vigilance became the norm, and for a time, we thought that was enough to protect us. This year, I happened to attend Rosh Hashanah services at that same day school where there’s now a mirrored glass outer door and an inner door. One closes before the other opens — a new layer of security that reflects our changing world. Today, it’s the homegrown threat of rising antisemitism that keeps us up at night and drives the work of our Community Security Initiative.
But since the tragedy of 9/11, another change has taken place, this one a positive development. What began as a day of grief has expanded to also become a day of volunteerism and action. On 9/11, we honor the lives lost, the sacrifice of first responders, the resilience of New Yorkers, by coming together to make a difference. As we’ve done for many years now, we’re mobilizing our community to participate in a day of service.
This year, on Sunday, September 12th, we’re collaborating with 9/11 Day, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Mayor's Office of Volunteerism, New York Cares, and City Harvest to organize a meal-packing event at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. There are also opportunities to volunteer with our partners to plant memorial flowers, pack meals, deliver packages to the elderly, and more. Volunteer sites are filling quickly, so explore what’s still open and join us.
On that clear, bright morning 20 years ago, we had no idea what was to come. After the towers fell, it felt like we would never be the same. In truth, we aren’t. September 11th fundamentally altered us in profound ways, making us feel vulnerable in our daily lives in ways we never had before. But we also became more resilient, more grateful for community, more appreciative of our skyline and the city we ultimately built back stronger.
And because of that, we’re more ready to take on the challenges of today, which demand at least the same focus and conviction.
Yehi zichram baruch — may the memory of all those who perished be for a blessing.