Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001/ 6 Kislev 5762

The New Search
for Meaning

Jews taking life-changing steps as part of spiritual seismic shift after Sept. 11.

By Steve Lipman

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FOR Vered Sharon, it started with a lecture on venture capitalism at a mid-Manhattan Jewish outreach center the week before Black Tuesday. Attracted by a rabbi's comments on fulfilling one's potential, she returned to the center the day after Sept. 11 and has begun a return to traditional Judaism.

For Elissa Folkman and Sarah Redelheim, it was a search for meaning. They both had fast-track jobs that seemed less important after Sept. 11. Today, both are becoming teachers.

For Hunter Atkins, it was a conversation with a schoolmate. Approaching bar mitzvah age, he had no intention to have a bar mitzvah. Hunter spoke with a friend a few days after Sept. 11, and is now a bar mitzvah student.

There are other examples, uncounted ones. The terrorist attacks that rocked America had an obvious physical effect - buildings were destroyed, thousands of live were lost, many thousands more were left displaced or unemployed.

But the spiritual ripples of Sept. 11 are more subtle. How do you measure shattered goals, lost faith?

For some, the answer is tangible changes. They have invigorated their religious practice, initiated a modest religious affiliation, decided to begin new careers.

The changes are nationwide.

"There's a lot of soul searching, a reorientation of priorities," says Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side. "What seemed important before Sept. 11 is irrelevant."

Similarly, he says, a generation of Holocaust survivors dedicated themselves to the Jewish community, becoming rabbis, teachers and activists, "to make the world a better place in return for surviving."

"There was a tremendous sense of mortality, mortality of what our ideals are, what our values are," says Rabbi Daniel Green of the Jewish Enrichment Center here. "People are really searching to connect with something beyond themselves."

Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but many of the people who have already made life-altering changes are young, especially women in their 20s and 30s.

"Younger people are more open to change, to re-examining their lives," Rabbi Green says. "They have the freedom to do it."

Folkman, 23, was working as an assistant buyer in the men's fragrances department of a Miami department store when the terrorists struck. One phrase she heard over and over on television - "The person had really made a difference." - "really affected me," she tells New York Jewish Week.

"What am I doing?" Folkman asked herself. "What am I doing to help people?"

At work the next day it was business as usual. "They didn't care," she says.

So Folkman is becoming an elementary school teacher.

"I had never, ever before thought about being a teacher," Folkman says. But "a light went on" after Sept. 11. "I like children a lot. I want to do something socially gratifying to give back to my community."

Don't teachers earn less than department store buyers?

"For sure. But I'd rather be happy than have a lot of money," says Folkman, who attended a Jewish day school in her native Philadelphia until sixth grade.

"Life is real short," she adds. "You don't know when it's going to end."

The lesson was not lost on a group of preteen students during a lunch break last week at the Park East Day School. A visitor asked how Sept. 11 changed them, what they were doing differently.

One student said he keeps in touch more with his parents when he leaves his house. Another spends more time with a sibling who has "some problems."

Then Quila Israelson, 12, raised her hand.

"When I go to my grandparents' home," Quila said quietly, "I never forget to say 'goodbye' or 'I love you,' in case there's no tomorrow."

On the Wednesday before Black Tuesday, Vered Sharon went for the first time to the Jewish Enrichment Center, an educational outreach program a block from the Empire State Building. That evening was a panel discussion that included venture capitalists and high-tech veterans. Sharon, a "young, single, professional," has worked in the field for a decade.

"Somebody dragged me there by the hair to get me to a religious-sponsored business event," she says. "On purpose, I stood by the door because I was going to leave."

But she stayed in the packed room the whole time, more than an hour. After the yuppies spoke, Rabbi Daniel Green, president of the Jewish Enrichment Center, talked to the twentysomething crowd.

"I didn't understand what a bearded rabbi could add to a well done but secular business discussion," Sharon thought. Then Rabbi Green, in a "relevant" business context, told the story of the Chassidic rebbe, Reb Zusha, who instructed his disciples on his deathbed that G-d wouldn't ask him in the next world why he hadn't become Moses.

"Why weren't you Zusha?" - why didn't you become all you were capable of becoming, G-d would ask.

"It got me," Sharon says. She took the rabbi's words as a personal challenge. Afterward, she went up to him. "Hi, rabbi," she said. "My name is Zusha."

Sharon went home that night. Reb Zusha stayed on her mind. Then Sept. 11 came.

Like most New Yorkers, Sharon was shocked. "I have friends who lost more friends than they can count.

"I needed some kind of spirituality," says Sharon, an Israel native who grew up in the United States and had drifted from the religious observance of her youth. "I didn't know where to go."

The next evening she attended another program at the Jewish Enrichment Center, "making sense of the tragedy," throwing her spiritual questions at Rabbi Green and other center leaders. "I walked out of there in tears."

Sharon spent that Friday night at the JEC Shabbaton, praying at the Madison Avenue headquarters, eating with the rabbi's family. To avoid desecrating the Sabbath, she took a cab from her apartment in lower Manhattan before sundown and left her gifts for the Greens - a plant and a bottle of Israeli wine - with their doorman.

After dinner, she walked home.

For the first time in years, Sharon observed the Sabbath.

Sarah Redelheim originally thought about becoming a teacher. By college she had become interested in public relations; she was working in direct marketing for a Fortune 500 company on Sept. 11. By the next week, she was a former direct marketer.

Redelheim, 23, quit her job and is supporting herself as a waitress. She will return to college next semester for a degree in teaching. The Philadelphian wants to become an elementary school teacher, or a high school English teacher. "That would be my dream come true," she says.

She had had second thoughts about her career in marketing, but "I don't think I would have made a rash decision" to follow her childhood desire were it not for the terrorist attacks. "I realized I didn't want to bother people," calling strangers or ringing their doorbells.

A friend escaped the World Trade Center. And a cousin who works in the Pentagon is safe. "It made me realize how precious life is," Redelheim says.

"I think I take things a lot more to heart than most people I know," she says. Redelheim considered her decision in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, "teary eyed," like everyone.

Her decision is "100 percent."

"I might not have forever to be a teacher," she says. "I always remember those teachers who had an impact on my life. I want kids to be able to remember me as a teacher."

Hunter Atkins turns 13 in December, and he wasn't planning to become bar mitzvah.

"Absolutely not," says his mother, Elizabeth Hajt. "We were totally non-observant. He didn't want to do the work."

Hunter has now started private lessons for his bar mitzvah. It was his idea.

The Friday after Sept. 11, he came to his Upper East Side home from his private school and said he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. He added, a few days later, "I want to do it in Hebrew. I don't care how long it takes me."

"It was a combination of Sept. 11 affecting him deeply and his being open to friendly persuasion," Hajt says. A Jewish classmate convinced him how important a bar mitzvah is.

Hajt arranged for Rabbi Meir Fund, a Flatbush, Brooklyn, pulpit rabbi and teacher whom she has known for years as a freelance writer for The New York Times, to tutor Hunter. The ceremony will take place sometime next spring, when Hunter feels himself prepared, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabbi Avi Weiss opened the congregation to the bar mitzvah, although Hunter and his parents are not members.

"I'm trying to learn Hebrew with Hunter," Hajt says. She says Hunter's father, Robert Atkins, is "very supportive" of the bar mitzvah.

Hunter, uncharacteristically, asked to go to temple on Rosh HaShanah. "I have a different child" since Sept. 11 - "180 degrees different," Hajt says. "I really like it."

"This is the beginning of a long-term commitment," Rabbi Fund told Hunter. Hajt isn't so sure. First, the bar mitzvah.

"I'm looking forward to having Rabbi Fund in my house talking about Torah," she says. "I could see us thinking more about the larger questions."

Since her first post-tragedy Sabbath with the Jewish Enrichment Center, Vered Sharon has gone to synagogue nearly every Saturday. She has started to pray Shacharis weekday mornings, enrolled in online yeshiva classes and gotten rid of some non-kosher dishes. And she has decided that intermarriage is out.

"I want to marry an Orthodox man," Sharon says.

"It's definitely connected to Sept. 11," she says. Sharon says she always felt at home in the traditional Judaism she learned as a child. "Sept. 11 reminded me. Sept. 11 made me question myself, why am I here?"

"I don't feel I was being true to myself" - before Sept. 11, she says.

"My friends," Sharon says, "call me Zusha.

"I want to be like Zusha," the Jewish symbol of fulfilled potential, she says. "I want to be Vered. I need to be Vered. Questioning brought me to Reb Zusha."

Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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