Calm Seas, Blue Skies and Hope

The sky was brilliant blue with no clouds hovering.  The air was crisp and the sun was shining.  I walked on the Boardwalk adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and felt the fresh air melt away my stress.  I returned to my car to head home to begin the day and was annoyed to find that my radio was broadcasting static and not my favorite programs.   As I entered my house to dress to get to the interfaith clergy meeting I was to be hosting in the next hour, my phone was ringing and it was my assistant telling me to get to a TV to see the news.   The date was September 11, 2001 and the first plane had just hit the first of the Twin Towers.  By the time I got to my TV the second tower had been hit and we began to realize that this was no mere accident.

Thirty minutes later my ashen faced colleagues arrived with each of us sharing what little we had been able to learn.  We prayed together and discussed what we thought we should each do.  While we were meeting with the Television turned on low, we saw the Towers crumble.   We agreed to meet in a few days time to assess what we felt would be necessary to do.  We were all dreading what we would find out about the fate of our congregants and friends so many of whom worked in the financial district.  We of course had yet to learn about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania or about the attack on the Pentagon.

I received a call from my son who could see the towers from his high school classroom who wanted me to come get him so we could get my younger son from middle school and all be together.  When we arrived at the middle school the mother of one of his classmates who worked in the office went with us to get my other son from class.  She told us she had just heard from her husband that his fire department had been called in to assist, that was the last news she ever heard from him.  His body was found two months later and his burial took place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

For days afterwards though we were twenty miles away, we could smell the fires burning, see the haze in the air and see the streams of smoke going out to sea. Our skies were silent as all air traffic in our area was stopped for five days.  It was only during the midst of a community service in a local park that we heard the first plane fly over head.  For the first time our neighborhood cheered as we welcomed the roaring sound of regular jets filling the air.   As Rosh Hashanah approached a few days later we began the New Year saddened, shocked, dismayed yet clearly bound together.  This feeling of unity sadly, did not last long.

Eleven years have passed since that day.  I have heard the platitudes uttered about the meaning of that day.  I have shed tears for the thousands that died that day and the thousands more young men and women who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq too. I wonder though, what have we really learned since then?   What messages do we convey to our children, especially those who have been born since?  How are we honoring those who died?

In the coming weeks as we move ever closer to another presidential election I know that we will hear speech after speech about the role America is supposed to play in the world.   We will hear how this politician or that one will make certain that a tragedy like 9/11 will never happen again.  I hope that no matter what side they represent, that they are right.

I mostly hope however that someday it won’t take a tragedy of this magnitude to unite people.  I hope that someday soon, we might find a way build a world that is truly united in creating a dignified peaceful and secure world for all God’s people which will be filled with beautiful blue skies, crisp air and calm sea breezes.

Saying Goodbye before Saying Hello

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

June 19th was supposed to be my due date.  My first child was supposed to be born on June 19th. As a congregational rabbi, I thought this would be perfect. I would take my maternity leave during the summer- the quiet time of the year and be back to work before the High Holy Days. However, as they say in Yiddish, Mann traoch, Gott Lauch- Man Plans and God Laughs. Except with us, God wasn’t laughing…in fact it even took me quite a while before I was able to laugh again.

My pregnancy was going relatively smoothly and then, like a Mack truck, I was sent to a specialist at the end of my 24th week. I was told by the doctor that I needed to rest as much as possible and drink a ridiculous amout of water (my words, not his). He also said that realistically speaking, I might be fighting to remain pregnant for weeks and not the remaining months until my due date. He didn’t seem overly concerned. He calmly said I might have to be on bed-rest or even hospitalized and that my baby might need to be in the NICU, but he didn’t seem to think anything worse would happen.

So, I followed “doctor’s orders” and took off from work, rested and drank a ridiculous amount of water.   I must say, that my congregation was incredibly supportive and the parents from the Religious School immediately sent over food, activity books, magazines and even flowers for me and my husband and a dog treat for our puppy. I rested and drank water, rested and drank water and rested some more and drank a little more water. I went back to the specialist the following week, thinking (and praying) that my situation had improved.

However, as you know from the title of this blog…there would be no improvement. In fact we found out that our baby’s heart had stopped before he would ever get the chance to take a breath outside my womb. As soon as I heard the news I began to cry and even wail. My husband and I cried together and then left the doctor’s office to begin making the plans for me to go to the hospital and go through labor. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that in a period of 4 days we went from picking out names and thinking about cribs to picking out a burial place for our son.

I have been sitting in my grief and trying to find purpose. Why did I have to go through all of this? What was the purpose of all the suffering?

I do believe that we can find purpose and meaning even in difficult and tragic situations. It doesn’t make it “alright,” and it doesn’t make it “fair,” or even explain why something happens. As Rabbi Harold Kushner details in his famous book, I don’t know why “bad things happen to good people,” but I know that they do. If we can at least search for meaning in bad things it may help us to move forward- to go on with our life.

In fact, that is what my husband said to me as soon as we found out the horrible news- that we will go on. It was his way of saying, “we have each other and we’ll get through this together.” He, along with my parents, siblings, friends, congregants and even strangers have truly been there for me. I have been blessed with a truly caring community and for that I will always be grateful.

I’m still searching for the meaning in all of this loss and in some ways I may search for that meaning for my entire life. I do know, though, that one place I’ve found purpose is by sharing my story. This has allowed me to let others, like me, know that they are not alone and that they too, will get through this. And God-willing, they too will find purpose even in a tragedy.

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

Rabbi Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi and Educator at Sinai Reform Temple (www.sinaireformtemple.org) in Bay Shore, NY.