9/11 is seared in my memory, and always will be. It was an absolutely beautiful, cloudless 70° morning in Manhattan. I stopped in a deli in Times Square next to my office for some coffee where I heard the news, probably around 9:15. The counterman said he heard a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
I immediately called my mom at her home in West Bloomfield to tell her I was okay. I told her to tune in for more info.
We all know what unfolded thereafter.
In the days that followed, an unforgettable stench filled the air – over 4 miles away from the site of the devastation. My mind raced to the Holocaust and communities in the shadow of the death camps. How could they claim ignorance to what was happening when we could clearly see and smell the ashes of destruction?
Every New Yorker knew someone who knew someone who had been impacted directly. I had an in-law who, thanks to his impetuous nature, made it to safety. Rather than wetting paper towels and waiting, as many of his coworkers did, he immediately fled. From the 97th floor. He was one of the only survivors from his trading firm.
In the days that followed, I moved around in a mental fog. There was an overriding urge to connect with your fellow New Yorkers. A quick hello to all in your building, making eye contact with strangers. The sense of oneness among locals was palpable. It eventually dissipated, but for a time there was a sense that we are in this together. No one knew with any certainty what the future held.
I remember preparing for Rosh Hashanah about a week later. I wondered what sort of sermons the Manhattan rabbis would give, especially the young, less-experienced ones. Just as with COVID, there is no playbook to reference with regard to these momentous tragedies.
Baseball resumed in New York ten days later. At Shea stadium, the Mets pulled out a come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Braves, on a two-run homer by Mike Piazza in the bottom of the eighth. The win was hugely cathartic, much bigger and more meaningful than any baseball game.
One of my strong enduring beliefs is that the attack helped change the opinion of many regarding Israel and terror attacks. To that point, it seemed many Americans had a feeling that terrorist attacks in Israel must have some justification. Afterwards, I think they better understood that individuals can attack with no real justifiable provocation or purpose other than death as an end in and of itself.
I feel a sense of loss at the unity our country once shared. We were truly United States with a sense of purpose. Much has been lost but perhaps nothing as significant as that sense of oneness.
During these High Holy Days, 20 years after that tragic day, we should strive for that sense of unity in pursuit of appealing to our better angels and promoting the public good. May we remember 9/11 and honor the memory of those lives lost by renewing our sense as Americans of a shared values, purpose and possibility.
Greg Bernhardt is a proud Oak Park High School graduate. He made a different sort of Aliyah to New York after finishing his graduate studies in Ann Arbor.
He has resided in Manhattan for the past 30 years. His wife Jodi, son Hunter and daughter Justine are the loves of his life.