Where were you on September 11, 2001? It is a question we have all asked and been asked. For my parents’ generation, that question was where were they when Kennedy was assassinated. Ours is most definitely the destruction of the Twin Towers.
I was in Jerusalem. My husband and I were directing a post–high school program for young women. Young women from New York. Some of whom had parents, relatives or friends working in the Twin Towers.
We all knew that history had been changed foreverWhen the first plane hit, I was in the park with a friend and my baby. Our students were on a trip to the Western Wall visiting the tunnels. Suddenly a man ran by the playground screaming about the towers. He made no sense, but something worried us enough to pursue it. We walked to a local barber shop, and there it was, on the small television in the corner: New York City.
Shockingly, no one was paying any attention. The music continued to play. The customers continued to gab. And there was the first of the towers with a gaping hole in its side. Before I even realized I had done it, I screamed “Pigua!” which means “terrorist attack!” In Israel that is a word you never want to hear, and when you do, it is serious. Needless to say, everyone quieted immediately.
Prior to my shriek, no one had paid attention, because the news was focusing on the United States. And no one could possibly have imagined that anything of the sort could have happened in New York City! We had all falsely believed that the US was immune. Terrorist attacks were something we in Israel had accepted as reality, but nowhere else.
And then, as we all stood watching the smoke billow out from Tower One, we froze in horror as the second plane plowed into Tower Two, followed by the collapse of the buildings.
And then we all knew that history was changed forever.
Where were you?
I called my husband who was in the center of town and told him to get home . . . immediately! I didn’t want him on the bus or public transportation. I was worried that World War III was about to erupt, and being in Jerusalem, I feared we would be at the center of it all. He came home. So did our students. And then we had to begin explaining.
Miraculously, none of their parents or relatives were in the Towers at the time. But we almost all knew someone who had been there. A friend of a friend, a relative of someone we knew, someone.
The world stopped. The world mourned. Here the greatest superpower had been hit at its core. The tallest buildings in New York City had been toppled. Thousands of innocent lives were instantaneously taken, and hundreds of thousands more forever scarred.
And no one thought it could ever have happened.
We were indestructible and invincible. We were the United States of AmericaPerhaps one of the most difficult realities to accept was our loss of innocence. As a people, as a culture, as individuals. Until September 11, as an American I felt protected, I felt safe, I didn’t question our security. Until September 11, we traveled, worked, ate, played, without the slightest thought or concern of an attack. We were indestructible and invincible. We were the United States of America.
As an Israeli living in Israel, I had accepted the reality of living in fear of terror. As an American, I had not. September 11 made me question my sense of trust and security. It made me question me.
I realized that I was always vulnerable. I just didn’t know it.
When we ask or answer, “Where were you on September 11,” we shouldn't limit the question to our geographical location. Because for all of us, it was so much more than that. Where were you? Where was I? Where were we? And more importantly, where are we?
There is a famous story of the Alter Rebbe, the first rebbe of Chabad, when he was imprisoned in Russia for teaching Judaism. A government official who was well-versed in the Bible and its commentaries approached him to ask a question that he felt the Alter Rebbe could answer for him. The official wanted to know why, in the story of Creation, Adam is asked by G‑d, “Where are you? Ayekah?” G‑d clearly knew where Adam was. And the official wasn’t satisfied with the standard response, that G‑d wanted to give Adam a chance to reveal himself.
“Where are you?” is a question that is constantThe Alter Rebbe responded that ayekah, “where are you?” is a question that is constant. For all time. For all of us. “Where are you?’” explained the rebbe, “is G‑d’s perpetual call to every human being. Where are you in the world? What have you accomplished? You have been allotted a certain number of days, hours and minutes in which to fulfill your mission in life. You have lived so many years and so many days—Rabbi Schneur Zalman spelled out the exact age of the minister. Where are you? What have you attained?”
This September 11, let’s not only ask ourselves, “Where were you when it happened?” But let’s reflect on where we really were, and where are we now? Have we changed, have we developed? Have we grown? Have we accomplished? Where are we in our mind, our heart, our spirit, our state of being?
And perhaps there is an even more important question to ask: Where do we want to be? And then let’s commemorate our devastating loss by doing all we can to get there.