They Came to New York From a War-torn Israel. Then 9/11 Happened

Four Israelis remember the mood in the city following September 11, how it compared to the homeland they had left behind, and one explains why he felt compelled to immediately go to Ground Zero

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An Israeli flag is placed near a victim's name at the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero, August 31, 2021
An Israeli flag is placed near a victim's name at the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero, August 31, 2021Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP
Eitan Nechin
Eitan Nechin
New York

NEW YORK – Amos Dodi was on his way to class at University Hospital-Brooklyn when people began chattering about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. When he reached the hospital, monitors were showing live coverage of the scenes from downtown Manhattan. By the time the second plane hit, all the staff and patients were glued to the screen.

After the Twin Towers fell, Dodi’s teachers said to be ready for the hospital to receive a mass of injured people. Clarkson Avenue, the broad road leading to the hospital, was shut to allow ambulances coming from the city to arrive more quickly.

“I remember standing on the top floor of the hospital looking at the avenue, waiting for the ambulances to arrive. As it got dark, we started realizing no ambulance was going to come,” says Dr. Dodi, who at the time was a first-year medical student.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the unprecedented terror attacks that would change the world. But for New Yorkers, that day – and those subsequent weeks, when the situation was still confusing and hazy like the smoke-filled Manhattan sky – was deeply personal. And for those Israelis living in the city and outer boroughs, the devastation brought unwanted memories from home.

“I was in a Starbucks on the Upper West Side. My co-worker, who was in the truck, entered and told me a plane hit the towers. As an Israeli, I instantly knew it wasn’t an accident. We ran to the car and started driving downtown to our office. As I turned onto the West Side Highway, I saw the second plane hit the [South] Tower,” says Rachel Bendetson, the owner of a large cleaning company who’s been living in New York since 1991.

“We got to the office, which had west-facing windows. We saw the buildings collapse. It was a collective shock. All the phone lines were down. We didn’t know what to do, so we stayed in the apartment downstairs. A few hours after, we began seeing people covered in white dust, some of them also covered in blood, walking on Grand Street toward the Williamsburg Bridge,” she recounts.

“We were in the restricted zone; we couldn’t get out. I stayed in my friend’s apartment. After two days, there was a familiar smell. I remember it from going to funerals during the first Lebanon war: it was a smell of death. And it was all around,” Bendetson adds.

Tatia Rosenthal was living in Brooklyn at the time. “I was coming out of the doctor’s office in Union Square when people gathered in front of TVs,” she recalls. “I could see the smoke coming over the skyline. At that instant, I began getting a tension headache. It was the same one I used to get during the Gulf War,” the filmmaker adds. “I didn’t want to take the subway, so I started walking toward Delancey [in the Lower East Side]. When I got there, I saw people walking silently from the west side. We all walked across the bridge; it was dead silent.”

For Shahar Mintz, a musician who was living in East Williamsburg at the time, the day was like something out of a Hollywood movie. “I’m a film buff – in the kibbutz, I was in charge of screening movies,” he says. “I was in Queens, working. The radio was on and we listened to the coverage: two planes into the towers, one at the Pentagon, another on the way to [Washington]. I got home to my loft and went onto the roof. Seeing the smoke waft over the city, it somehow made sense. It felt like witnessing the end of the world – and it was familiar. This is how all those movies started. Here, in New York.

“I don’t even remember how, but I got in touch with my parents,” he adds. “I told them that if anything happens, that I love them. I wasn’t scared, but I felt that this might be the end.”

People exiting Manhattan following the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.Credit: Mark Lennihan / AP

Complete confusion

At the time, of course, communications were far less reliable or accessible than today and for Israelis, like many immigrants, getting in touch with those back home (or loved ones close by) proved difficult, if not impossible. Scattered information, communication breakdowns and, particularly, the sense of complete confusion are common to all of these accounts.

“My roommate was working as a paralegal on the 61st floor of the South Tower,” Dodi says. “Throughout the day, I was pacing anxiously, waiting for the shift to end. I walked to our apartment in Park Slope, where we only moved two weeks before. Our apartment is next to Squad 1, the fire department company that lost 12 members in the South Tower collapse. I opened the door and saw my roommate. We hugged. He was sick that day and didn’t go to work. We did a ‘lehayim!’ and went to our rooftop, which overlooked downtown Manhattan. There was ash in the air and soon pieces of paper flew onto the roof, pieces of memos and scraps of paper with company letterheads. People who I went to college with were there that day. My roommate somehow was not.”

Bendetson spent the first few days after the attack at her company’s apartment in lower Manhattan. “Only after a week, I got a bike and cycled to my apartment in Chelsea. When I got to the door, my doorman ran outside and hugged me. He thought I was dead,” she relays.

Along with the confusion and devastation, Mintz says that despite the road closures, and the military and fire department going in and out of the restricted zone, New York felt open – “kind of like Yom Kippur in Israel.” This led him to go on a spontaneous walk that took him to the heart of the chaos.

“Maybe it’s that Israeli thing in me, but I felt I had to go explore,” he says. “It was the day after the attack, there were three of us and we crossed the bridge into Manhattan. South of Houston Street was closed and you could only enter if you could prove you lived in that neighborhood. One friend lived in the Lower East Side, so we got through. He went home and we, the two Israelis, made a beeline [for Ground Zero], walking in the middle of the street. I realized we were on Broadway – no cars, no people. It was unbelievable! None of the police officers or National Guard soldiers paid any attention to us.

“As we walked southward, the smell of ash and burned metal became stronger,” Mintz continues. “The streets were white from ash. I took my camera and started taking photos. You don’t even realize the magnitude and impact of what you’re doing at that moment. And then we got two blocks from the site. We stood there, slack-jawed, when a police officer noticed us and told us to get the hell out of there. It was more than a war zone. The closest I can describe the scene to is like a volcanic eruption.”

The Tribute in Light art installation in New York last night, commemorating the victims of 9/11.Credit: GO NAKAMURA/REUTERS

Sense of togetherness

As well as the chaos and confusion, Israelis also remember another side to the city immediately following the attacks. “That [first] night, the streets were filled with candles, restaurants offered free food, there was a real sense of togetherness – a bit like after Rabin was murdered,” Rosenthal says, referring to the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Dodi, meanwhile, compares the aftermath to something of more recent memory. “In many ways, it was similar to what we experienced as doctors during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic,” he says. “People came together in ways the city never experienced before. They showed their appreciation for one another, for the police, firefighters. Until then, Manhattan was detached not only from the rest of America, but from the other boroughs. The attacks were not only on New York but on symbols of American institutions: the Pentagon, the plane that was downed on the way to Washington – which, incidentally, a relative of mine was on. 9/11 turned New York into an American city,” he says.

It also brought back memories from home. “As an Israeli, it felt so familiar,” Bendetson says. “Growing up in Jerusalem, we experienced this kind of violence. Not that I was happy, but I had a thought that, finally, the world would understand what we’ve been living with all these years.”

Dodi had moved to New York after finishing his military service, so there was something about 9/11 that wasn’t alien to him either. “I came out of Lebanon and arrived here,” he says. “Suddenly, it felt like what I wanted to get away from was at my doorstep. On the one hand, it was unnerving. But also there was something very familiar about it,” almost comforting in a weird way, he adds.

Some of the interviewees say the events of 9/11 didn’t reshape only the Middle East but also American society. “The solidarity of that first period, when the city came together and the country embraced it, faded pretty quickly,” Dodi says. “The invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War stuck a wedge within society that widened. Those people who embraced the firefighter and police were suddenly at odds with them. As a doctor, I could feel this division grow. The clapping for the doctors [last year] changed to fighting about vaccination and mask mandates. Solidarity with law enforcement turned to the Black Lives Matter protests,” he adds.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event in Jerusalem marking 10 years since 9/11, in 2011.Credit: Baz Ratner / REUTERS POOL / ASSO

“After Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg came and started building,” Mintz observes. “That’s how Americans are: You destroy something, we will build it bigger; we will come back with even more force.”

“Perhaps that’s the difference between Americans and Israelis,” Dodi says. “Unlike Memorial Day in Israel, which is a solemn day, here, half of Americans are in the cemeteries and half do barbecues and go shopping. It’s because Israelis have to commemorate, remember, hold on to memory, write about and retell what happened over and over. Americans like to move on, for better or worse.

“The tragedy of 9/11 doesn’t hold the same place as national disasters do for Israelis. It’s tough to grasp as an Israeli, but that may be what makes this city go on.”

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