9-11 letters

Rabbi Herbert Yoskowitz remembers two nuns who were with him on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was an incredible series of moments that were filled with sadness and with prayer.

Two Dominican Sisters of the Roman Catholic Church, Sister Mary Magdalen and Sister Anna Marie, of the Order of Preachers (O.P.) and I had arranged to meet at Adat Shalom Synagogue at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

The nuns had learned of the recently published book The Kaddish Minyan that I edited and wanted to learn how Judaism helps to heal the souls of the recently bereaved. One of the sisters lived in Farmington Hills, while the other was visiting from Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies.

My two visitors that morning were part of a religious order dedicated to healing the world through prayer and action. As we sat together in my office, the sisters and I spoke about the commitment to healing to which our respective religious faiths are dedicated. We talked about the importance of our Covenant with God and to join with Him “l’taken olam b’malchoot Shaddai” — to repair the world in God’s kingdom.

Rabbi Herbert A. Yoskowitz
Rabbi Herbert A. Yoskowitz

We were in the midst of a deep theological discussion when the calm was interrupted by the terrible events of that day as our country was attacked.

“Sisters,” I asked my guests, “would you join me in our chapel to pray for the safety of our people now under attack?” They immediately agreed, and we silently walked together to the Shiffman Chapel to join in prayer. Irrespective of our mode of prayer — they were on their knees praying as I stood silently in prayer before the Holy Ark — we were at one praying for the lives and well-being of the American people facing imminent danger.

Who knows what effect our prayers a score of years ago will have on people of today or on some distant tomorrow? In his essay “Expiration, Suffering and Redemption,” Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik taught, “Somehow the small, modest unseen act, the seemingly insignificant deed, unnoticed and hardly discernible, is precisely the one which fills a higher place than great renowned heroism.”

Did our action of unity in the face of national trauma have a positive effect? Surely it did on us.  As the sisters wrote in a letter to me on Sept. 15, 2001: “Your teaching about the holiness of life to which your people are called (and wholeness of life!) and the integration of the progressive stages of life … into the dynamic of an ever-present relationship with the Lord, was an experience in itself. To pray with you was another.”

What an unspeakable horror was Sept. 11, 2001! About that there is no doubt. As we remember and honor the memories of the firefighters and others who made the ultimate sacrifice to try to rescue as many lives as possible, I remember two nuns, Sister Mary Magdalen O.P. and Sister Anna Marie O.P., one geographically close and one from very far away who were with me in prayer and in action to try to shape a world in which our covenant with God will make an even greater positive difference in leading us to a unity of sacred life-affirming values of our Torah. 

Herbert A. Yoskowitz is rabbi emeritus of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills and lecturer at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, Rochester Hills. He served as the Jewish chaplain at the John Dingell VA Medical Center for 25 years. He is the editor of The Kaddish Minyan: The Impact on Ten Lives (Eakin Press, 2001) and The Kaddish Minyan: From Pain to Healing: Twenty Personal Stories (Eakin Press, 2003).

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