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How Do They All Know the Same Song?

Eytan Kobre

Ten years ago this week, Muslim terrorists rained death and destruction of unparalleled magnitude on an unsuspecting America at New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington. And while so many first-responders gave their lives in their attempts to save others, one group witnessed a succession of open miracles — and no losses. A decade later, Hatzolah leaders relive the Divine Providence of that horrifying day, which they didn’t believe they’d survive.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I arrive at Hatzolah’s Flatbush headquarters on a brightly sunny August day so very much like the morning of September 11, 2001. I’ve always felt that that day of horror, now seared into the collective consciousness of humanity simply as “9/11, was somehow made all the more terrifying by the serenely pleasant morning into which it burst with maniacal intensity.

I’m here to listen to some prominent Hatzolah members share their recollections of 9/11 for the tenth anniversary coverage of that tragedy of tragedies — but I fail. Because as I sit across from Heshy Jacob, Hatzolah’s indomitable president, it quickly becomes clear I’ve gotten it all wrong: for Heshy, as for Hatzolah CEO Rabbi Dovid Cohen and board member Zelig Gitelis who joined our conversation, there are no 9/11 “anniversaries,” tenth or otherwise. They — like the 185 other Hatzolah members who spent September 11, 2001, in downtown Manhattan — relive those frightening hours every day of their lives.

Before sitting down to talk, Heshy insists that we listen to the first few minutes of the tapes of the Hatzolah dispatcher receiving the initial frantic reports from the field of the attack, sending every possible unit speeding toward the Towers. It’s a deeply surreal experience to sit there, knowing how events would unfold, hearing human beings — Yidden — trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. The eight or so of us packed into that tiny room, riveted to that recording, are listening to a world that was just minutes away from losing its pre-9/11 innocence forever.

With that bracing introduction, Heshy frames the conversation to follow: “This isn’t a story about Jacob, or Cohen, or Gitelis, or about any of the 185 or so Hatzolah members who were there that day. You know what it’s about? About a year and a half ago I was asked to speak at an NCSY event on the subject of ‘Are nissim seen in this generation?’ And the answer I gave was an emphatic “Yes.”

“This is a story,“ Heshy continues, “about how the Ribono shel Olam did nissim v’nifla’os for us on that day to the point that, when at the end of the day, the head of the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system, Chief Robert McCracken, asked Itzy Stern, ‘How many guys did you lose?’ Itzy didn’t want to tell him how many we lost because we hadn’t lost any, and they had lost hundreds. So he began describing a broken leg here, a broken arm there. Chief McCracken interrupted him: ‘No, I mean how many died?’ So Itzy sheepishly said ‘None.’ The chief thought for a moment and said, ‘Tomorrow I’m staying with you. It’s evident G-d was with you today.’ ”

I look at Heshy and he’s not here, he’s there, in that place, as he continues in a voice thick with emotion: “For ten years I’ve walked around wondering ‘Why?’ We were in the Towers, we were close on all sides, so why did the Ribono Shel Olam do that neis for us openly? And I believe the answer is because we all came b’achdus.”

Heshy says this was the message of the dispatcher’s tape. “You heard where they came from: Boro Park, Flatbush, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Upper East Side, West Side, Lower East Side, Riverdale, Canarsie, Queens, every single neighborhood came for one reason — because Jews and other people needed them. So the story here is that if Klal Yisrael is unified, we would also be able to see nissim in many other places.”

He pauses, a sob caught in his throat.

Heshy Jacob is a doer, a leader, made in the tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside mold. His role as Hatzolah’s president is a volunteer one — he’s been a member since 1968, about a year after its founding. A former Wall Street trader, his current “day job” is that of managing the East River co-ops. One might call Heshy, whose roots in New York’s oldest Jewish neighborhood go back over a century, “Mr. East Side.” So when he begins to cry, it might catch you by surprise. But then, a lot of grown men cried on 9/11. 

“I was at the Vista Hotel … and when I got down there, there were exactly two fire trucks, an FDNY ambulance, Naftoli Solomon’s ambulance, and ours on the scene. What did the Ribono shel Olam do? As I came down Vesey Street, I saw those two buses [i.e. ambulances] were on the left, so Got hot geholfen and I made right and parked by the telephone building. Had I made a left I would have been under the building. So the Eibeshter openly guided our decisions. It’s not for nothing that Rav Reuven Feinstein paskened for us that a member who was there that day and hasn’t gone by the site for thirty days, is mechuyav to make a brachah of ‘she’Asah li neis b’makom hazeh.’ ”

“Maybe it’s a mussar thing and I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should say it,” Heshy comments, “but I have no other explanation for why we all escaped. I’m not G-d’s accountant, so He didn’t exactly check with me to say ‘Okay, Heshy, here’s why I’m doing it.’ ” But Heshy has his theory. “No one had an agenda, no one had p’niyos [ulterior motives]. We all came together, and the Ribono shel Olam saved us all that day.”

 

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