Rosh Hashanah Day 1 2018: Protecting others, Saving Lives

Protecting others, Saving Lives


New Year’s Eve


A Place Crashes in Costa Rica

12 People were killed

But I knew one of them.

Hannah Weiss.

A young, beautiful kind young woman who was at college here in NYC and was my children’s babysitter.

Hannah had been here at SPS just 10 days before the crash.

When I heard about the deadly crash, I thought about her final moments. And her parents final moments, and I imagined their horror and I thought about their cries.

And the cries of all of them when they realized that


Their lives were ending now and no one could help them.

And can you imagine the cries of the family members who answer the phone?

The cries of the friends as the news began to spread

The cries of the community who lost dedicated people

The cries of our world….our world which was so much better with them in it but will be built on their memories.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about Hannah.

And I began to think about Hannah and what she stood for. The first was her commitment to saving our planet. Hannah was studying the science of sustainability at Columbia and Jewish Studies at JTS and was always modeling and inspiring others to care about our environment and to take responsibility as Jews and as human beings. This is so appropriate on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, the day where we celebrate not only being together as a Jewish community, a lesson I will get back to, but a celebration of the world itself.

The second thing is that Hannah believed in everyone’s capacity to do good. When Hannah was leading USY’s Tikun Olam efforts, she kept highlighting different teens each month. Hannah knew it was one thing to do good, but that to make real change required everyone to see their ability and to take action.

You see, for me, the worst part of the plane crash, was not just the utter loss of life, but the inability to protect the ones we love. As a rabbi I encounter death a lot. And I have tragically buried young people and old people and everyone in between. I sat with my friends when I was 12 and watched when their moms were buried and i buried a friend when I was 27. But the fact that an entire family, two families, were just obliterated, astonished me. This was all I could think about. And those are the things I often feel like I can’t talk about out loud, because I don’t know if people, I don’t know if you, want to hear my doubts or my thoughts about what scares me.

But I know that I need to talk about this, and think about this, because what happens when things occur that are out of our control that we cannot explain and that we cannot fix, our mind keeps running……Even as a daughter in a family that is like all others, even as a mother, even as a rabbi…I struggle with this. The essential question is not “how could god let this happen” or “why did the plane crash” but the question of the universal question of people-how do we protect those we love? –

I understand that I am asking these questions as we simultaneously say “who will live and who will die…AND We ask point blank-

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

We say it year in and year out and we try to look at it as a metaphor. BUT…

I struggle with this. I think what I have learned in my years on this earth is that we can’t act like fatalists, but the fact is, we probably would be saner if we did. We wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. We would go through life a bit more carefree. But eventually something will happen. Trees fall. Planes Crash. Attacks occur. “Heroes” disappoint us.

So could it be that the expectation of good is not realistic?

In fact, (and i know it sounds crazy…) in a moving scene in the ABC show Grey’s Anatomy, there was conversation between a rabbi that was dying and a doctor whose firm faith was being challenged.

The rabbi, as patient said, “  where-where is it written exactly that if you do this or that, that everything in your life’s gonna be good, hmm? Nowhere, in any faith, is there a guarantee.
I’m not asking for everything to be good all the time. But could I get Fair?

Fair? Was it fair when Isaac went blind and then his child betrayed him? And where was the fairness when Sara had to wait 99 years before she had a child, and then God said, “Sacrifice him”? And Moses couldn’t even get past the bouncer to the Promised Land. And like I said, I’m not up on the sequel, but from what I hear, Jesus got a raw deal.

Nobody in the Bible lived a life free of suffering or injustice, or it wouldn’t have been a best seller.
And if they lived lives like that, why should we expect our lives to be different?
Now, if people only believed in God when things were good, I guarantee you, after the Holocaust, not a single Jew would be a believer.

Faith wouldn’t be real faith, if you only believe when things are good.

The young doctor replied-Well, so, what? The world is just cruel and random, and there’s nothinganyone can do about it?

To which the rabbi replied-Look, I don’t have a lot of time here.
Do you mind if I just skip to the part where I pretend I don’t know what to tell you? I’m just gonna tell you, okay? – Okay.
Terrible things happen.
Terrible, devastating things happen.

Who the hell are we to know why? Who are we to know why some people live and some people die? Children die.

Children who didn’t do anything wrong, children who were broken before they had a chance to be whole.

So you can either believe in God and goodness, or you can believe it’s pointless, it’s cruel, and it’s random whatever makes you happier.
Or we can do tikkun olam.
Tikkun olam means that the world is full of brokenness and it’s our job to put it back together again.

It assumes that the world is, broken and in need, and in pain. And it’s my job, your job…
And it’s our job, to fix it.

Theology from a shonda rhimes show. And you know what? it is true.

THE THING IS-We can’t always prevent planes from falling and towers crumbling, but somehow, we can hold out hope and faith, that someone will reach out to help our loved one in the depths of despair. Someone will reach out to us. Or we will extend our hand.

You see, despite what we witness, we must also believe in the Tenacity of the human spirit in order to not only survive but protect and then thrive.

We must think about those boys this summer that were rescued from the cave in Thailand. But we know, it didn’t just happen. The recovery occurred because people extended themselves beyond what we thought was imaginable. The recovery occurred because they were able to use cutting edge technologies-technologies that were actually created in Israel. The recovery occurred because people worked together.

Will things always be rebuilt? No. But there are moments we can look to where we realize that working together in in fact our only option.

Today (tomorrow) we mark the 9/11 attacks. We have heard horror stories. Stories of bravery. Stories of loss. Stories of miracles. One of those stories happened to our SPS member, Jonathan Judd. Jonathan was in the towers that morning. Here is his story:

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jonathan Judd was on his way to the office. It was a few minutes before 9 a.m., and a day of litigation work awaited him on the 85th floor of the North Tower.

Having reached the 78th-floor sky lobby, he transferred to another elevator that should have whisked him to his office, as it did every day.

But on this day, the elevator car stopped on the 83rd floor — and its doors opened briefly, offering a terrifying view —   an explosion.

Three elevator banks just across the narrow corridor from Jonathan erupted in flames.

Looking back, Jonathan attributes his survival in that instance to sheer luck.

“There was a 50-50 chance that I would have been in one of those three elevators,” he said.

At that moment, two images flashed in his mind: that of his wife, Deborah, and his 6-week-old baby girl, Jordana.

Jonathan, rattled and terrified, ran out of the elevator and into the first office he could find. He encountered a man named Fred Eichler, who told him that he had just seen a plane fly into the neighboring South Tower.

“I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand,” Jonathan said. “I told Fred I had finally gotten married at 36 and had a newborn at home and now wasn’t sure whether I’d live.”

The men called the FDNY and were told to stay put. A unit was on its way up to rescue them.

“I had no idea what was going to happen to us,” Jonathan said.

In large part, Fred credits his rescue with the good fortune of hunkering down in an office with glass windows, unlike other offices on those floors with wooden doors.

Though the clear glass door outside the Axelera lobby, Fred noticed the beaming flashlight of firefighters coming to rescue them. Fred shouted for help at the right moment and let the brave rescue workers in.

As the group started their descent, Fred remembers trying to stay focused on one goal: getting out.

“I kept repeating to him: ‘We’re gonna get out,’” Fred said.

Alongside firefighters, Fred helped Jonathan walk down from the 83rd floor, step by step. Jonathan was not injured, but was shell-shocked and needed support.

“Despite being a complete stranger, he did everything he could to keep me calm and reassure me that we would make it out and somehow, miraculously, we did,” Jonathan said.

While the men and rescue workers were making their way down the snaking, treacherous stairways, they heard a loud “whooshing” sound as they neared the 20th floor.

They would later learn that this was the sound of the South Tower collapsing.

Little did they know they did not have much time to escape the similar fate that awaited the North Tower.

Fred remembers thinking: We got so close, but we’re not going to make it. He remembers the air feeling different, too.

It took them approximately 45 minutes to make it down to the North Tower lobby.

The men were separated on the fifth floor, each led to safety through a different passageway.  

Separately, each got out the same way — climbing through the shattered lobby windows and onto the ash-covered streets.

“We really didn’t know what was happening. Everyone just kept yelling at us to run,” Fred said.

They got out with just five minutes to spare. The tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.

“To say we were extremely lucky is an understatement,” Jonathan said.  

The men did not connect again, at least not that day.

Hours later, Jonathan finally made it home to his wife and baby. He’ll never forget seeing them after the horrific events of that morning.

“I just felt this… unbelievable relief,” he said.

Jonathan Judd’s 7-week-old daughter, Jordana.

He wanted to thank Fred, but had no idea who this steadfast stranger had been.

In the weeks following the attacks, both men’s bosses ended up on the same phone call and began comparing stories of survival, when Jonathan’s telling of that day came up.

They were able to connect the dots, and link Fred Eichler as the man that helped Jonathan Judd on that cloudless September day.

Three weeks later, Jonathan picked up the phone and called Fred, the man he credits with saving his life.

“Hi… this is Jonathan Judd.”

“I…don’t know a Jonathan Judd.”

“I’m the guy whose life you saved on Sept. 11.”

And to this day, the men keep in touch, speaking on the phone every few weeks and meeting in person when possible.

“That connection we have will always be there,” Fred said

It is at these moments that I think about how connected we are to each other.  How connections with other members of humanity help us live, even when we can’t fix all that might be bad.

And on these days of Rosh Hashanah, it is the human connections we must think about. We can protect ourselves and others by looking out for those we care deeply about and those that we just met.

We can understand that we are part of a greater system beyond ourselves. Someone recently shared with me that on a recent episode of Orange is the New Black there were  Two non jewish characters speaking to each other-One says to the other ‘It’s good to have company when you grieve. It what the Jews call, a um, a shiver. So you don’t get cold.”

I don’t watch the show, but I find the line exquisite. What we do for one another, during our deepest moments of fear or loss, is looking out for one another. We might not solve everything. We might not protect everyone we want to protect. But the impact of human connection are profound. \

Connecting with one another the best we can and propping each other up is something that we can commit to in this year year. And let me tell you, it will save lives.

A little while ago I spoke about the unetaneh tokef prayer, struggling with the words-who will live and who will die. But REMEMBER the final line. That Teshuva,  repentance, Tefillah, prayer, and Tzedakah, GOOD DEEDS, will avert the evil decree. Is this a guarantee? NO. But let’s focus on the good deeds we can do-the good deeds of connection-because it will save lives.

What do I mean? Suicide rates have increased at least 25% since 1999.  What can do we do about it? How do we help people who are in the depths of despair? How do we talk about mental illness and depression? We start by naming it. By acknowledging there is a problem. Then, we need to connect people.

“Social connections, in a very real way, are keys to happiness and health,” noted Dr. Jeremy Nobel, founder of the UnLonely Project at Harvard Medical School and  Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, stated that loneliness and social isolation play “an outsized role” in preventable deaths by suicide. (

“They urged that social relationships be considered a national public health priority “to roll back those heartbreaking, preventable deaths of despair.”

But it’s not just young people who are lonely. “More than a third of adults are chronically lonely, and 65 percent of people are seriously lonely some of the time,” Dr. Nobel said in an interview. Among the groups with especially high rates of loneliness are veterans, 20 of them take their own lives each day. Even half of chief executives experience loneliness (it can be lonely at the top), a state that can adversely affect job performance.

…The aim of the UnLonely Project, Dr. Nobel said, is to raise awareness of its increasing incidence and harmful effects and reduce the stigma — the feelings of embarrassment — related to it.

…“Loneliness won’t just make you miserable — it will kill you,” Dr. Nobel said.”

Get involved at SPS. We have so much for you. And if you haven’t found it, help us create it. We need you. And if you or someone you know needs help, reach out. You can always call on me.

When the plane crashed in Costa Rica, the Jewish digital universe went into high alert. People started reaching out, talking, figure out how to connect.

Rabbi Avi Olitzky shared “We begin the new year with hope, but then tragedy strikes and we are again reminded how fleeting each moment is, how small the world can be, and what “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” might really mean—not that all Jews are responsible for one another, but that our lives are uniquely intertwined. And the personal pain is shared, profound and raw.”

When a member of our world is in pain, we are in pain. It is why we say the mi sheberach, the blessing for the sick each week. Because we need to understand this is what we must do to forge human connections.

We can’t prevent tragedies. But moments like those force us to ask tough questions and to wonder, how do we care for the ones we love. We talk out loud about our hopes, and our dreams, and our fears. And we continue to look for blessings where we might find them.

So, finally, I will offer a blessing to all of us-this is a blessing that I offer at baby namings since the rabbis taught that with each new baby born, the world begins anew.

This poem is called, may you always have enough. And this is my prayer and my blessing to all of us, as we begin a new year for the world:

  • May You Always Have Enough
  • May you always have–
  • Enough happiness to keep you sweet,
  • Enough trials to keep you strong,
  • Enough hope to keep you happy,
  • Enough failure to keep you humble,
  • Enough success to keep you eager,
  • enough friends to give you comfort,
  • Enough wealth to meet your needs,
  • Enough enthusiasm to look forward,
  • Enough faith to banish depression,
  • Enough determination to make each day better than yesterday,
  • And let us all say, Amen.

Shana Tova