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New York Jews commemorate 9/11 anniversary with ancient prayers, fresh hope and brand new Torah

By Joe Berkofsky

NEW YORK — Members of the New York Board of Rabbis gathered in downtown New York City last Saturday night for a highly unusual Selichot, the prayer of repentance.

This service, which traditionally heralds the High Holy Days, was conducted at Ground Zero.

The ceremony marks the 23rd day of Elul — which fell on the first annual yahrzeit, or Jewish memorial date, of Sept. 11.

It is among scores of events and programs by Jewish institutions and organizations in New York, and around the country, to commemorate the Jewish and secular one-year anniversaries of the attacks on America.

The rabbinical board, which spans the denominational spectrum, focused on the theme “Facing a New Year When We Cannot Forget the Old,” meant to reflect on lessons the nation learned over the last year.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of Congregation Mt. Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and chaplain of the New York Fire Department, led the service.

Potasnik, who counseled firefighters in the wake of the attacks, said that for him, the ritual sounding of the shofar and it’s note of tekiah, of healing and renewal, especially resonates this year.

“After the trauma, we always have the tekiah. We Jews believe there is always going to be an opportunity to begin again. The tekiah has always been that clarion call of spiritual optimism.”

In the New York area, dozens of events will mark this yahrzeit around the High Holy Days — for a list, visit the United Jewish Communities’ Web site list at 911remembrance/index.htm:

The Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located in New York’s Battery Park, five blocks from the former World Trade Center, is opening an exhibit this week called “Yahrzeit: September 11 Observed.”

“The museum’s proximity to the site of the tragedy, its identity as a downtown cultural institution and its mission of remembrance, compel us to reflect and remember with the community and our neighbors,” said the museum’s chairman, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

The show will examine how Jewish ritual, communal and neighborhood organizations, and individuals responded to Sept. 11.

On display will be objects such as the ceremonial No. 1 helmet given to firefighter David Martin Weiss at his funeral, and a scrapbook his son, Michael, assembled on Sept. 11.

Jewish objects will include the shofar that Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a New York Army National Guard chaplain, blew last Rosh Hashanah at Ground Zero as he ministered to aid workers and a Book of Psalms that volunteers read while keeping watch over the dead at the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office — a ritual that usually lasts less than 24 hours from death to burial, but in this case spanned eight months until remains could be identified.

On Sept. 9, the Downtown Kehilla, along with the Educational Alliance and local synagogues, will conduct a tashlich ceremony, the ritual casting off of sins by throwing bread upon a body of water near Ground Zero.

In Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, the World Congress of Russian Jewry and the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe will lead a silent march Sept. 11 through the Russian Jewish emigre neighborhood, sound a shofar and recite Psalms and kaddish, the prayer of mourning, for 16 Russian Jews who died in the World Trade Center attacks. Some 1,000 balloons will be released with the victims’ names.

The Center for Jewish History on Sept. 11 will host a panel discussion, “Days of Awe: Personal Reflections from Ground Zero by the Jewish Chaplains.”

Goldstein, Potasnik and New York City Police Department chaplain Rabbi Alvin Kass — all of whom spent much time at Ground Zero — will share their insights into the past year from religious, historical and philosophical perspectives.

The following day Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will speak at the center about Sept. 11 and other topics.

The Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, in association with West Side synagogues and Symphony Space, will host “An Evening of Reflection and Hope” featuring 18 first-person accounts from New Yorkers about Sept. 11, on that day this year.

Other tributes and memorials by Jewish groups:

CLAL: The Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is producing an audio tape of prayers, Jewish and American texts, music, and readings geared for Sept. 11.

The tape opens with Brahms Requiem, and moves from the sounds of sirens to the blowing of the shofar. It includes readings from the Book of Lamentations and audio from newscasts of Sept. 11.

“The cassette offers a profoundly Jewish way to deal with an American loss,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, CLAL’s vice president.

Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is publishing a booklet for campus groups to mark Sept. 11. Called “For the Parchments May Burn, but the Letters Are Flying Free,” the pamphlet includes new prayers fashioned from ancient texts; thumbnail biographies of Sept. 11 victims from The New York Times; letters from two Hillel alumni who were killed in the recent bombing at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and words and images from the Bible and Talmud meant to tackle Sept. 11.

The booklet’s title comes from the story of Rabbi Chanina Ben Traydon, whom the Romans burned wrapped in a Torah scroll in the year 135 CE for illegally teaching the Torah.

As he was dying, Ben Traydon’s students were said to ask what he saw. “The parchments are burning, but the letters are flying free,” he told them.

The Lubavitch have completed a new Torah scroll written for Ground Zero victims, during its Los Angeles-based annual telethon fund raiser, “L’Chaim-To Life!” last Sunday.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the executive producer of the telethon, and Rabbi Shlomo Henig, a ritual scribe, started writing the 300,000-letter Torah at the late Lubavitch rebbi’s home in Brooklyn.

“We began this Torah to bring additional and eternal light to New York City and the world, which the powers of evil tried to plunge into darkness,” Cunin said.

After the telethon Chabad presented the Torah to the Chabad of Wall Street shul, which is located in the shadow of the former Twin Towers.

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