It was a morning like any other, a clear sky above the Upper West Side, where my art studio class at LaGuardia High School was starting its fall semester. Across Amsterdam Avenue, the gates of Engine 40 Ladder 35 quickly went up and fire trucks raced downtown carrying 11 men to an unprecedented emergency.
This was before Facebook, Twitter and smart phones provided instantaneous news updates of events. To us, it was a routine siren, but within a half hour, commotion was heard in the hallways as staff with access to radio and television realized that it was more than a fire. A second airplane crashed into the South Tower. A plume of smoke dominated the horizon, half of the fire department was on the scene and subway service was shut down in Manhattan. Within 56 minutes, the South Tower collapsed, taking the lives of approximately 600 workers, bystanders and first responders.
At the time, Israel was undergoing a Second Intifada, with a continuous onslaught of suicide bombings on civilian targets, indiscriminately murdering members of every layer of Israeli society. The coordinated Al Qaeda attack on that Tuesday morning was intended to overwhelm the senses, with four airplanes aimed at the leading symbols of American security. Israel came to my mind, a country under siege that continued to stubbornly fight on with a semblance of normal daily routine.
From rooftops and windows around the city, smoke spewed from downtown, cameras rolled and at 10:28 a.m., 102 minutes after the American Airlines Flight 11 rammed into the North Tower, the World Trade Center ceased to exist taking with it another 1,355 lives.
Students packed into the school’s lobby, as officials struggled to decide whether to contact parents or to release the students on their own. By late afternoon, the 7 Train was rolling again, and as it emerged from the tunnel, the passengers looked south at the gaping hole in the skyline, and the cloud of smoke that littered countless fragments on the city.
My high school is like no other, attracting students from around the city united by their shared appreciation of the arts. It was a liberal atmosphere, in all the positive attributes that this term carries. Together, the students laid flowers at the firehouse, donated blood, purchased food, painted, danced, sang, and acted to honor the dead and the rescuers.
A decade later, we are all reminiscing and seeking ways to restore that brief sense of unity in the face of terror rivaled only by Israel. In my life, I am proud to keep ties to two high school classmates I regard as kindred souls, liberal in outlook, but with a strong spiritual sense of right and wrong.
Charlotte Meyhoefer graduated and went on to a Christian college in rural Pennsylvania, followed by a year teaching in Uganda before returning to her Bronx home, where she coordinates youth programs at a ministry. Jonathan Foy is a man of diverse backgrounds, raised on the Lower East Side, attending the historic Trinity Church with his mother. He spent a year teaching in China and returned as a Muslim. All three of us studied art at LaGuardia High School.
It seems almost like an informal “G-d Squad,” and I would love to give them a tour of Jerusalem, where each of us has a sanctuary. It’s a source of pride in my life that interfaith efforts are not the sole responsibility of Rabbi Marc Schneier, Abraham Foxman, and other hardworking and experienced community leaders. Without a genuine connection on the grassroots level, cynics will see the rabbi-imam-pastor handshake as a superficial photo-op. Neither of us intends to turn our monotheistic friendship into a film. It would destroy our friendship as easily as a reality show breaking up a marriage.
A decade later, I still see a world sharply divided, where columnists and commentators only seek to outshout their opponents, where attempts at courtesy are as good as the non-apology of “I’m sorry that you feel offended” the unsolicited “Im yirtzeh HaShem by you,” or the misleading “We will keep your resume on file.”
Some of us have taken the post-9/11 mood to heart. In my mind, the example of engineering professor Liviu Librescu on April 16, 2007, facing off against a lone gunman at Virginia Tech, giving up his life so that his students would live. It was his campus’ 9/11, and he was able to prevent a greater tragedy. Among ourselves, we’ve volunteered on community patrols, synagogue security, and as auxiliary officers. A brave few in our community have put on American and Israeli uniforms, serving in combat.
Our world changed on September 11, and through our efforts it should continue to change in a positive direction, bringing with it a sense of remembrance through unity.