Cantor Thom King of Beth El Congregation thought it was an accident when he learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“Then the second plane crashed in as we were watching the TV at the JCC. Everyone was just gobsmacked by that,” King recalled. “It was obvious after that it was not an accident, and it was intentional.”
King was working out at the JCC gym in Owings Mills at the time. Other Baltimore Jews were on their way to an appointment, walking into the synagogue, teaching or being taught when planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and a field in Western Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed that day.
“It felt like our East Coast mid-Atlantic world was under siege,” retired art teacher Steven M. Shapiro said.
For many people, a lot would change that day. The world would feel less secure, notions of American invincibility would be shattered and, after an initial response of unity, divisions would widen. But when news first broke, for many people, it was a frantic dash to collect facts and contact loved ones.
“When I first heard about [the attacks] one of the things going through my mind was I had children at a Jewish day school,” said Joan Cohen, the current executive director of Jewish Community Services. “And that was always at the back of my mind. Could there be safety concerns or was it targeted to that perspective? That was always somewhere in my mind, and it was heightened.”
Scott Stofenberg, a current Baltimore resident and social worker, was a middle school student in Long Island at the time. A girl in his grade lost her father that day. Stofenberg felt more vulnerable afterward, and he said that 9/11 represented a loss of innocence.
“When I was still a child, I was too young to understand Columbine [school shooting] when it happened. So that didn’t really have an impact on me,” Stofenberg said. “But this, this was it. The world being an irrational place, the world being an unfair place, that terrible things do happen and you have no control over that.”
Stofenberg thinks that, while 9/11 opened people’s eyes to the greater issues plaguing the world, it also somehow managed to gloss them over.
“That was right around the time you had 24/7 news all day long on these channels,” Stofenberg said. “It feels like nowadays we are constantly bombarded by terrible things that happen [and] that we can become desensitized as a nation.”
As a clergy member, King spent the weeks following 9/11 comforting the large increase of synagogue-goers who echoed Stofenberg’s sentiments. King said the attacks kicked off national debates over personal freedom and community safety.
“People were coming looking for answers, and I think we were all looking for answers, and there weren’t many answers to be found anywhere,” King said. “There was a reaction that you had to take
what happened and deal with it. You have to move forward, but it took so long to move forward.”
King said he felt a responsibility as a clergy member to comfort people.
Cohen felt the same responsibility. She was serving the community as a member of a Jewish Family Services crisis team.
“That was the first time as someone trained in crisis work that I experienced being part of the crisis while trying to support others in the crisis,” Cohen said. “So that was a challenging experience, and there was a part of me that realized, feeling what they were feeling was probably helpful. Because that empathy part, and that aligning part of helping someone, maybe even was heightened because you understand truly what they might be feeling rather than being removed from their crisis.”
Cohen said 9/11 led to people learning crucial lessons in crisis work and PTSD care for first responders, knowledge that she believes has been useful during the pandemic.
Shapiro was also on the front lines of emotional support as a teacher at the Key School in Annapolis. Many of his students had parents who worked in the Pentagon or in the military.
“Our job as teachers was to provide avenues of hope and positivity,” Shapiro said. “These were young kids we were stewarding. We had to give them an opportunity to express their worries and their fears but also give them a way to move forward into kind of a brighter future.”
Shapiro said it was crucial that he didn’t encourage kids to jump to any overt political conclusions. He and the school administrators were also worried about the welfare of their Muslim students.
This was also a concern of Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. At the time, she was a rabbi in Connecticut.
“I was very aware of the very quick backlash against Muslims in this country and very concerned about that backlash,” Sachs-Kohen said. “[I was] really trying to share that message of, this is a frightening time and the best answer is not to lash out, but to understand what’s happening here, to comfort the mourners and to not look for scapegoats.”
While some scapegoated, others, many others, chose unity.
Shapiro said he grew up during a divided time in the U.S., which included antisemitism, segregation and the Vietnam War. He said 9/11 changed that, for a little bit.
“I remember in the weeks and months after 9/11 feeling more patriotic, more connected to my identity as an American and to the idea of the immigrant origins of the country,” Shapiro said. “I think for a while, even as much as a year or two, the nation felt very connected. That racial and religious and ethnic differences didn’t seem to make so much difference as they might have before. I wish I could say that lasted, but I don’t think it has.”
Justin Regan is a freelance writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times. He produces the American Rabbi Project podcast.