Remembering Avremel (Abe) Zelmanowitz
When the terror attack occurred, Avremel was fifty-five; his friend Ed, a quadriplegic, was forty-two. Both worked at Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield as program analysts on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center.
By Chavie Zelmanowitz (sister-in-law), as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
On the morning of 9/11, Avremel davened in the same shul with my husband, Yankel, which was unusual. Usually, whenever they said goodbye, they would shake hands. That morning, however, Avremel came toward Yankel and hugged him tightly before he left for work.
While driving home after taking me to work, Yankel heard that something had happened at the World Trade Center. He tried to call Avremel. I also tried. We couldn’t get through. Then Avremel called Yankel. He said, “I’m here with Ed. We’re waiting for help and then we’re going to leave.” Yankel called me and said, “I heard from Avremel—he’s going to leave.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I got a phone call from Avremel. I asked, “Where are you calling from? I thought you were on your way home.” He reassured me that the air was clear where they were, on the 27th floor. “I’m waiting here with Ed for someone to come help.” He said that Ed wanted to wait for a medical team, because in the past when people lifted him improperly, his bones would break.
Edward Beyea, who became disabled after a diving accident at age twenty-one, was a large man. He used a wheelchair with all kinds of contraptions. He had no arm or leg function, and operated his computer with a mouth stick. An aide accompanied him at all times. The normal routine was that the aide would bring him to work, set him up in his cubicle, and go up to the 43rd floor to the cafeteria. That’s where she was when the plane hit. There was water coming down, things were falling, smoke was filling the room. She immediately ran back down the staircase to the 27th floor and found the two of them together. Avremel assured her that he would stay with Ed and that she should leave. She barely made it out. Avremel is responsible for her survival.
Avremel told me, “The fireman is here and he wants me to move to another area.” That was the last we heard from him. No one had any idea that the buildings were going to go down. He didn’t stay to die; he stayed to help. That was his intention.
Avremel and Ed had worked together for twelve years. They traded books and tapes and played chess together. Avremel was a master carpenter; he built Ed a cigar stand and a book stand so that he would be able to read in bed. He used to visit Ed during his numerous hospitalizations. It was a friendship that culminated with this extraordinary act.
Initially our son-in-law made up a flyer; everyone was posting flyers for missing relatives. The flyer mentioned that Avremel was together with a quadriplegic friend. Immediately, we were bombarded by reporters. They wanted to hear details of the story. We were interviewed on a few news programs, at one point three in one day. A week after 9/11, our rav told us it was time to sit shivah. Rescuers were not finding anyone alive any longer. We knew Avremel had been in the building at the time. It was time to make a decision.
By Yankel (Jack) Zelmanowitz (brother), as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Avremel lived with us. When my parents went to Eretz Yisrael in 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War, he moved in. I was his big brother; I’m twelve and a half years older. We were very close. I took him into the textile business with me, and then he learned programming. He was really a wonderful human being. He had a lot of friends. Always friendly, always doing ma’asim tovim, favors for people, giving tzedakah, going to shiurim; everybody liked him. He was a simple guy who never looked for praise. His death made such a roshem, such an impression on people. Letters came in from people all over the world. A woman in Canada contacted us. She has a son with cerebral palsy who was fifteen-years-old at the time. She worried about him going into the workforce. “I hope I meet someone like Abe,” her son said.
That week, when President Bush spoke, he mentioned Avremel. He said: “We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. . . . We have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice. Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend.”
My son, Chaim Shaul, was there when the president came the week of 9/11 to visit Ground Zero. He was told to stay behind to tell the story to the president. He called us and asked what he should do since it was erev Shabbos and time was short. We said, “Stay as long as you can, leaving yourself enough time to get home for Shabbos.” In the end, he had to leave before speaking with the president. We received a phone call from the president’s staff. “We’re looking for your son to meet the president,” they said.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, all of the victims’ families were at Ground Zero. The president spent time mingling with the families and made special time for us. He is a person with a heart; he is very compassionate. He didn’t know what to do for us.
Avremel’s actions that day are what defined him. He lived his entire life that way, always caring about people, always anticipating people’s needs. You wouldn’t have to ask Avremel for something; he’d understand that it had to be done and he’d go and do it. This was who he was. He was an extremely devoted son; his kibbud av va’eim was extraordinary. He never married or had children, but our children and grandchildren are following in his footsteps in their gemilut chasadim. How proud he would be to know that.
We were called upon to speak about Avremel very often—at shuls, dinners, et cetera. A library at a nearby yeshivah was dedicated to him. We were constantly on call; that helped us get through the initial period.
In August 2002, the police came to our home to inform us that they had identified Avremel’s remains. We were able to have a kevurah. He had always wanted to be buried in Israel; we asked someone to arrange for a plot on Har Zeisim. When we got there, we were amazed that he had found a plot available right at the foot of our parents’ graves.
In 2006, a street was dedicated to Avremel. The street, on the corner of East 35th Street and Kings Highway [in Brooklyn], our corner, was renamed Abe (Avremel) Zelmanowitz Way. One of the speakers at the dedication, Rabbi Shlomo Zucker, said it is so fitting that the street is called “way” rather than “lane,” “drive,” or “street,” because Avremel showed us the way to live, the way a person should conduct his life, and how he should interact with Hashem and his fellow man. That is his legacy. He led by example.
We have letters from people he worked with. One of his colleagues wrote, “We knew he was a religious man, but he never preached. He was always aware, thinking ahead, thinking of others.”
The effect that Avremel continues to have is amazing. After I heard the news about Bin Laden, I wanted to go down to Ground Zero. It was a relief; we felt a need to share it with those who had lost family members, to be close to them. While we were on the train to Manhattan, my son called us. He said he just got a call from NBC News. They wanted to interview us, find out about our feelings. Avremel’s story is out there.
While at Ground Zero, we must have given twelve or fifteen interviews. Reporters from all over sought us out, wanting to hear the story. We told them the story of Avremel. We always try to point out that it was an Orthodox Jew and a non-Jewish friend and this is what Avremel did because of his friendship.
The Shabbos before 9/11, Avremel had gone to a shiur. He was a very reserved person. He wasn’t pushy in any way. When the rav started to speak about Kiddush Hashem, Avremel interrupted him and said, “How could an ordinary person make a Kiddush Hashem?” He got an answer but wasn’t satisfied. Avremel interrupted him another time; again, the rav gave him an answer. Then he asked a third time. It wasn’t like Avremel to do that. Three days later, he got his answer.
Every rav has told us the same thing: it’s an obligation to perpetuate Avremel’s story. No matter how painful it is for us, we do it l’shem Shamayim. I feel it is our responsibility to perpetuate his Kiddush Hashem.
Chavie and Yankel Zelmanowitz live in Brooklyn, New York.
Shemirah on First Avenue
By Devorah Schreck, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
The morning of 9/11, I was in the Stern College dorm. A lot of girls started getting phone calls from their parents asking if they had heard what was going on. We hadn’t. We turned on the radio and listened to the news. We rushed out of the dorm to the [main] school building a few blocks down. As I left the dorm, I could see from where we were—34th Street and Park Avenue—smoke billowing from downtown Manhattan. We got to the college lounge area and sat watching the news on TV in total disbelief. We didn’t know whether it was a terrorist attack or an accident. We sat there stunned.
A few days earlier, my grandmother had passed away. I had spoken with Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman [rabbi of the Young Israel of Midwood in Brooklyn] about death. We talked about hashkafic aspects of the dying process—what happens to the body, what happens to the neshamah. He told me that after a person passes away, the neshamah is in a state of distress until the time of burial. I thought about shemirah. The act of shemirah is something people do to give comfort to the neshamah. Saying Tehillim is a way of easing the neshamah’s suffering and giving kavod to the deceased.
Months after the attack, in January, I saw a sign hanging in Stern with a number to call for anyone interested in doing shemirah [for the victims]. Stern is a couple of blocks from the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (the morgue) on First Avenue and 30th Street.
Many of us felt a profound sadness, and didn’t know what to do with those feelings. Doing shemirah, even for a few hours, was a way to transform those feelings of sadness and mourning into something productive. I called the number and was given a shift.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I had heard that because there were so many killed, the morgue wasn’t large enough to handle all the remains, so they set up makeshift trailers and medical examiner stations outside of the morgue. I wasn’t a pre-med student, the kind who was inclined to do this type of thing.
I went with a friend. We took sifrei Tehillim and walked to the morgue. They said, “Oh, you’re here for praying? You can go into this trailer.” We were directed to a small, makeshift building. We saw siddurim from others who had been there. We sat down on wooden benches. It was just my friend and I. It was quiet except for a constant buzz, an undercurrent of humming from the refrigeration trailers that surrounded us. Even though it wasn’t a very loud noise, it was deafening when we thought about what it meant: remains were being refrigerated since a couple of months had passed. It was intense.
As I davened, I focused on the fact that here are people—someone’s mother, sister, brother. I knew people in the community who were killed. A girl in Stern had lost her brother-in-law in the attack. We sat for a few hours and said Tehillim, trying to focus on the lives that were lost and how to elevate the neshamot.
My friend had to leave early and I ended up being there by myself. It was like you’re in your own world—you hear this buzz and you’re in a closed room. I felt like it was a spiritual place; the davening flowed naturally. The most moving aspect was that I felt that through our actions, we were somehow able to inject Godliness and spirituality into a situation of utter destruction.
I felt grateful for the opportunity to help. After spending a couple of hours in the morgue davening for people who passed away in such a tragic manner, it really put things into perspective. The day-to-day things we worry about pale in comparison to the suffering around us. It makes you appreciate your time here. We’re not here forever, and it’s important to make the most of the time we have and use it properly.
Devorah Schreck is an attorney at Kaye Scholer LLP in Manhattan.
The Orthodox Union headquarters is located at 11 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, where the Twin Towers once stood. On the morning of September 11, 2011, as the Towers came crumbling down, many OU employees were already at their desks, while others were still making their way to work. Dozens were trapped in the chaotic and terrifying streets of Lower Manhattan. Here are some of their stories.
A Different Kind Of Rosh Hashanah
By Yoel Schonfeld, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Usually, I would take the R train and get off at the World Trade Center stop. The morning of 9/11, the air conditioning in the R train wasn’t working well, so I decided to get out at Lexington Avenue and transfer to the 4 train. Later, I heard there was an avalanche in the World Trade Center station.
At the Fulton Street stop, people were screaming and yelling on the platform. The conductor quickly closed the train door and moved on to the next station. At the next stop, even closer to the World Trade Center, there was more pandemonium, and the conductor stopped the train and let everyone out. Out on the street, people were running around in a panic and looking up at the World Trade Center. I looked up and saw the Towers in flames and tinsel-like pieces flying out of the sky. I asked a construction worker what happened. “A plane flew into the building,” he said. I asked another fellow on the street, “Was this an accident?” He said, “Man, this is no accident; this is terror.”
I ran to the OU building, a few blocks away on Broadway. My daughter called me at the office to see how I was doing. While talking to her, I heard this earth-shattering roar. I thought it was a plane hitting the building. I said, “I think my building was just hit.” That roar was the collapse of the South Tower; it shook the whole downtown area. Everyone at the office was in a kind of a daze, not knowing what to do. We knew not to take the elevator, so me, my secretary, who was very pregnant at the time, and a colleague started to make our way down the stairwell.
When we reached the third floor, someone warned us not to go outside. “It’s bad out there,” he said. The staff at an Israeli firm welcomed us inside. We all huddled in a room. Outside our window, it turned black as the night, even though it had been a bright sunny morning. It was terrifying. We listened to the radio, following the events, trying to make sense of things. After about an hour, which seemed like an eternity, the sun reappeared, and we could see the streets. Everything was coated with a thick ash. We went outside, with towels over our faces and headed towards the Staten Island Ferry. We had to get out of Manhattan.
At the Ferry, there was total chaos. I asked an official-looking person if any boats were leaving for Queens. He said, “I don’t know about Queens, but there’s a boat going to Brooklyn.” We boarded what looked like an oversized fishing boat. No questions asked; we just went. For all we knew, he could have been taking us to the Gulf of Mexico; we were just glad to leave. He took us to Brooklyn Navy Yard, just outside of Williamsburg.
At the Navy Yard, people were milling about. We flagged down a Chassidic guy driving a station wagon. He dropped us off in Williamsburg. Women were wheeling baby carriages; it looked like business as usual. I met a fellow I know. “What are you doing here?” he asked me. “What am I doing here? I just came from the other side, from gehenom,” I said. He offered to give us (my secretary and me) a lift home. There wasn’t a car on the road. It was like a science fiction movie—the place was deserted. Cars were lined up alongside the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as people got out to look at the World Trade Center on fire.
When I got home, I found myself sitting and staring at my fish tank, envious of the tropical fish swimming around in such tranquility, oblivious to the horror outside. For the next couple of weeks, I didn’t sleep well. Every time I heard a crack of thunder or a truck driving over a grating, I shook. The air in Queens had a terrible stench that I will never forget–a mixture of fire, rot, and flesh.
The day we returned to work [two weeks after 9/11], the whole area was transformed into a military encampment. There were army trucks and soldiers with machine guns all over the place. Everyone in the office was on pins and needles as we tried to focus on work. A lot of reps at OU companies who hadn’t heard from us in a couple of weeks expressed how concerned they were about our welfare. They said, “The main thing is that you’re all right. We were praying for you.”
At the time, there was a spiritual revival. People wanted to make radical changes in their lives. Some religious women in my neighborhood who didn’t cover their hair suddenly started doing so. People were looking to give the tragedy meaning. That year, it was a different kind of Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld served as an OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator for twenty-seven years, and is currently rav of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, New York, and an OU Kosher consultant.
By Raizy Rosenfeld, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
I had just exited the subway at Broad Street. While walking under scaffolding along Beaver Street, I heard a loud boom. I cowered, thinking something was about to fall on me, but to my relief nothing did. When I got to the corner of Beaver and Broadway, near the OU building, I got my first real inkling that something was very wrong.
I saw women in business suits and high heels running south towards Bowling Green Park. Why are they running? I thought. Then I noticed some people crying. Someone near me said there was a plane crash at the World Trade Center. Someone else said that was the second plane. I figured I would go to my office and see if I could find information on the Internet.
When I got to my floor, I noticed that the lights were flickering. What if the elevator stops working? I thought. I wanted to get out of the building and see what was happening. I went to Trinity Street and saw the Towers on fire. All kinds of thoughts went through my mind—even mundane ones, like how will they ever fix the hole in those buildings? Then, right in front of my eyes, one started going down like a candle. Everybody started running. I heard someone yell, “Look out, it’s coming!” I turned around and couldn’t believe what I saw. A huge skyscraper-tall cloud of smoke was coming toward us so fast, like a snake slithering through the buildings. I realized there was no way to outrun it. It caught up with me. Suddenly, I felt a gentle push against my back, like when an ocean wave pushes you. Day had turned to night; everything was gray and brown. I covered my nose and mouth with my hands, trying not to breathe in the thick dust. The buildings were locked and people wouldn’t let anyone inside; they didn’t want to let the dust come in. Whoever was outside was stuck.
The sky was snowing ash. It immediately brought to mind the scene in the movie Schindler’s List where it looks like it’s snowing and people look up; then the camera pans to a chimney of the crematorium and you realize that it’s not snow. I was very conscious that I might be breathing in human ash. It felt surreal, like you would imagine the end of the world. People were either inside buildings or walking through the streets mid-ankle in paper and debris.
I figured I’d circle around and go to the Brooklyn Bridge.
I found a grocery store with its door open and the radio on. People were crowding around and listening. There was a feeling that we were all in this together, an instant camaraderie among strangers.
I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, and even though I wasn’t in the smoke anymore and it was the most beautiful, sunny day, it was then that I felt the most vulnerable. I thought a plane could come and crash into the bridge. All kinds of people were walking across it. I saw an elderly Chassidic man, his coat covered with dust, shuffling along. It made me think of exile; again we’re leaving, escaping evil and violence. I saw lots of shoes strewn all over the bridge, discarded high heels. It made me realize that even on a day as tragic as this, there were little blessings. I never wore sneakers to work, but because my feet were hurting me the day before, on that day I did.
When I got to Brooklyn, it seemed so grotesque to see normal life. People were going about their daily chores, in the supermarket, waiting at bus stops; everything seemed the way it was when I left that morning. I felt like I had just come off a different planet. I arrived home seven hours after I had left the office.
I was shocked to see the city reduced to ash. But I wasn’t surprised that it could happen—the way most Americans seemed to be. Jews have seen such tragedies happen in our history. We know people are capable of evil.
When I came back to work, two weeks later, it was Tzom Gedaliah—an overcast, gloomy day. It felt appropriate to come back on a fast day. The streets were still filled with dust. Every building was running on generators; you couldn’t hear yourself think. I came into my office, and although my window was closed, dust had seeped through the casement, coating the entire area near my window and even my work table.
During my lunch break, I went outside to see which stores were still open. Some had closed on 9/11 and never reopened. I noticed a store window display with a rack of clothing and a row of shoes. I thought, How cute, they are all the same exact color. Then I realized the items were all coated in dust.
It always bothers me when tourists ask where Ground Zero is. I feel like saying, “Here, right where you are standing.” It’s the entire Lower Manhattan. It’s the entire world. It’s not just one location—it’s everywhere.
Raizy Rosenfeld works for the OU Department of Communications and Marketing.