Selichot at Ground Zero
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Selichot at Ground Zero

Two years ago, some 80 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter brought their Selichot service to Ground Zero, offering prayers and stories at the site of the devastated World Trade Center.

“The solemn feelings [at the site] made it more potent and powerful,” said the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, noting that this year – with Sept. 11 and Selichot observances falling so close together – congregants will once again travel to lower Manhattan for the service.

The shul will hold “a traditional Conservative Selichot service” on Saturday night, Sept. 12, said Kirshner. A series of penitential prayers, Selichot takes place late on the Saturday evening preceding Rosh HaShanah.

“Selichot invokes the High Holy Days,” said Kirshner, “like a beacon or trumpet.” Using special prayer melodies that offer a foretaste of those used on the High Holy Days, “they are a wake-up call, reminding us of the High Holy Days.” The shul’s chazzan, Cantor Israel Singer, will join in the service, he said.

Joining the members of Emanu-El will be Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis – of which Kirshner is treasurer – and a chaplain of the New York Fire Department.

Potasnik, a first-responder in 2001, was also with the congregation at its service two years ago, when congregants “told stories in between their prayers,” said Kirshner. Speakers ranged from “people who lost friends, to physicians who worked at the site,” he said.

Kirshner noted that the service was made possible with the help of site developer Larry Silverstein, “who allows access to this area of Ground Zero.”

The rabbi added that members of the congregation will make Havdallah in the synagogue parking lot before leaving for New York. He expects more than 60 people to attend, he said, adding that he is not aware of any other congregation planning to hold a service at the World Trade Center site.

“Selichot is a time that puts a microscope on the month of Elul,” said Kirshner. “We blow the shofar every day…. It’s really a bell-ringing, telling us to prepare ourselves to usher in the new year.”

In addition, he said, “it’s a solemn time to make right what’s wrong between you and God, as well as you and other people, and to recalibrate” those relationships. Selichot, he said, reminds you “not to fall into your usual Saturday night customs but to do some soul-searching.”

The rabbi said it is important as Jews and as members of the wider community to keep alive the memory of those who died in the attacks on Sept. 11.

“We need to memorialize those who died needlessly on that day. It needs to stay in the frontal lobe of our memory so we don’t forget the reason they died,” he said.

Explaining that the holiday is about “asking for forgiveness and the ability to forgive,” he said, “it is our responsibility to do this in a place where it may be the hardest to do.” While those who will attend the service are certainly not ready to forgive the bombers, he said, going to a place of tragedy “brings a sense of solemnity and introspection,” just as people visit Poland to reflect on the Holocaust or go to a cemetery between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

He said he hopes the service at Ground Zero will accomplish two things – ushering in the season of reflection and renewal “and branding the memory of 9/11 in our daily actions. I’m afraid we’re reaching a state where we’re quickly forgetting.”

For further information, call the synagogue at (201) 750-9997.

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