Nancy Morgenstern, a”h: Remembering a Life of Joy, Faith and Passion
As told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Nancy Morgenstern, a vibrant thirty-two-year-old Orthodox woman, was one of the thousands of victims in the terrorist attack on 9/11. Nancy worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the global financial services firm which occupied the 101st to 105th floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center. No employee in Cantor’s offices at the time survived.
Suri Morgenstern (mother):
Nancy worked for seven years as a travel agent for Tzell Travel. She did bookings for Cantor Fitzgerald, a large securities firm. Nancy would bend over backward, make a hundred phone calls and spend the next three days trying to get a client’s airfare down. Even after Cantor moved its account to another agency, many of its executives continued to use Nancy for their personal travel arrangements. In the winter of 2000, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald’s Institutional Equities Department was so impressed with Nancy’s competence, dedication and personality, he asked her to work for him as his administrative assistant. She was amazed by the offer and told him she didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond. She told him she didn’t work on Jewish holidays and had to leave early on Fridays. He said, “I don’t care. I want you to work for me.” He saw a person who had tremendous integrity, a person who always wanted to do the right thing.
Nancy was not only my daughter; she was my best friend. What made her unique in the circles she traveled was the way she seamlessly blended her lifestyle with her dedication to Judaism. She had an absolute and unflagging commitment to what she believed in. She was a fiercely independent woman who loved the outdoors, athletic competition, and the camaraderie of friends from all walks of life–yet she remained an observant Jew. She seemed to relish the challenge. She never hid the fact that she was observant. She happily and patiently explained her actions and the reasons behind them to anyone who asked.
She was an avid cyclist. On one bike trip through Utah and Arizona, she brought along a cache of kosher food and some pots and pans. The guides were amazed at Nancy’s determination to stay in one place over Shabbos. She stayed in a cabin room by herself and caught up to the group the next day by prevailing on the locals to drive her to the tour’s next location. Her commitment was unwavering, whether she was on Manhattan’s West Side, the mountains of Colorado, the desert of Utah, or the tundra of Alaska.
We knew about her extensive network of friends–the West Side, the biking community, and her Colorado skiing friends–but we never realized the breadth and depth of these relationships. We didn’t fully appreciate her impact on seemingly everyone she met. She was a great friend, and anyone who knew her was lucky to benefit from her character.
One friend of hers told us that when she first came to New York, she went to a Shabbos meal not knowing anyone. There was a large group of close friends at the meal; all of them knew each other. She didn’t, and felt nervous and shy. Everyone pretty much ignored her except for Nancy. Then Nancy introduced her to everyone in the apartment and made sure to include her in the conversations. Nancy had this ability to identify the essential quality each person she met. Casual meetings developed into lasting friendships. And she wasn’t easily forgotten.
Now when I daven every day, as she always did, I have her in mind. I put more emphasis on appreciating the meaning of what I am saying. Tehillim has become my daily guide to life.
My husband and I cope by doing things to elevate Nancy’s neshamah. After a person passes away, she can’t accumulate any more merits for herself. It’s up to those who know and love her–family members–to help her have an aliyah. That’s the purpose of the fund; that’s what keeps us going. We thought we have to do something that is going to help someone else.
The Nancy Morgenstern Memorial Foundation helps keep us together and sane. Through it, we have the opportunity to positively and productively channel all our efforts so that Nancy’s neshamah can have an aliyah.
Harvey (Hanie) Morgenstern (father):
Nancy was our oldest daughter. When people found out that our daughter was in the towers, they asked us to tell them about her. (She hadn’t been living at home for a good few years, so some of our friends and acquaintances didn’t know much about her.) I started collecting anecdotes and also spoke to a few of her friends. I began writing it all down. Then the letters and emails started coming.
The letters filled in a significant portion of her life that we were just peripherally aware of. Some of the stories and comments we received were so compelling that we felt a desire to publish them, both for our sake and for others. While I was putting the book together, the publisher and everyone else involved in the process—Jews and non-Jews—got so wrapped up in the story. The publisher went out of his way with [even] selecting the paper and the cover . . . because of who Nancy was. Nancy was the story.
We have distributed more than 2,000 copies of Nancy Morgenstern: Testimonies to a Life of Joy, Faith, and Passion. It is a moving story told by the people who knew and loved her.
Nancy touched people. Here is an example of a comment we received from one of her non-Jewish friends [which is in the book] “…I miss her strong faith. I miss not questioning any of it. I miss watching Nancy give it her all. I miss her passion.”
Nancy loved biking. When she first started biking, she went on a bicycle trip out west with the Century Road Corp Association (CRCA). She fell in love with biking on that trip and continued to go on rigorous bicycle tours.
I was blown away, overwhelmed by what she accomplished. After she died, I decided I was going to attempt to see and experience what she did. I now ride her bicycle. Riding a racing bicycle with foot clips for someone who is not a very good bicyclist is in itself a traumatic event, but I took that on myself. I trained with her trainer. I went to Central Park and rode the hills.
Nancy reveled in Hashem’s wonders and actively experienced them. She drove all night with a friend to Denali National Park. They camped out with the entire Alaska Range surrounding them. Two years ago, my wife and I went to Alaska and followed Nancy’s steps as best we could. Where she went, we went. Here we were: two sixty-year-olds going kayaking on the Pacific Ocean. We were in a bay around the ocean with the fog rolling in and I said, “Where are we going?” We couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. This is the kind of determination Nancy had, and we wanted to experience it as best we could.
People still come over to us and tell us that they knew our daughter. There’s an annual bicycle race every second week of September, which the CRCA bicycle community in New York City has in her memory. Nancy made a Kiddush Hashem wherever she went.
My son-in-law who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh had an idea of what we could do in honor of Nancy. In August 2002, we purchased an ambulance for his community. Prior to this, there were no ambulances in the city. The ambulance led to us to purchase medical equipment for the community. Eventually, it led to our funding an all-volunteer medical emergency support service. Today the service consists of fifty drivers and emergency medical technicians who respond to emergency calls throughout the entire Beit Shemesh vicinity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Saving lives is such a zechus for the nifteres.
We still wanted to do more. The Kupat Shel Tzedakah, which supports a lot of families in need in Beit Shemesh, approached us asking for help. We decided to bring more joy to these families’ children. We bought ten bikes to be distributed among the families. A local bike repair shop offered to maintain them for free. As the kids outgrow them, they return the bikes and then they’re passed along to other kids in need.
Another project, the gemilut chesed fund called Keren Chana Perel–The Nancy Morgenstern Free Loan Fund–assists needy individuals in the community. People are able to borrow money, interest free, over short periods of time for simple things like a car repair or making a modest wedding or bar mitzvah. The decline in the value of the dollar has adversely affected some families in Israel, and the fund has been invaluable in providing them with short term financial relief. All the things we do through the memorial fund bring us comfort, and help us feel that Nancy is still with us.
Through the Nancy Morgenstern Memorial Fund, we also built a shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh. The synagogue houses a kollel and provides Torah classes for adults and children. There’s a plaque in the shul that states: “Heichal/Ezrat Nashim Chana Perl: In everlasting memory of a G-d fearing woman of grace who sanctified His name through her deeds and ways that inspired so many. Full of excitement, she would go to touch and experience the wonders of His creations, flowing with an abundance of happiness and a good heart.” That’s our daughter.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.