Today is anniversary of the devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. There are stories to be told of heroes, men like Abraham Zelmanowitz who stayed with a paraplegic friend rather than leave him to die alone, and Stephen Belson, a firefighter who lost his life trying to save others. There are also stories of those who demonstrated their strength of character in the days and weeks that followed 9/11, stories like that of the girls of Stern College.

Most college-age women have no reason to be familiar with the Jewish rituals of death and mourning. Although many of the Orthodox students of Stern College knew that the body of a Jewish person who has passed away needs to be “guarded” (with someone sitting nearby 24/7, often reciting Psalms) as a means of paying respect to the departed, few had actually sat shmirah (guard) themselves.

When the flames of the World Trade Center were finally contained, the unidentified remains of the victims were gathered into three container trucks to be identified later and buried. Although it was unknown whether the remains belonged to any Jewish victims (although the chances were great), an appeal was made for volunteers to serve on round-the-clock shmirah. A large group of volunteers responded from Congregation Ohab Zedek, a synagogue on the Upper West Side, but Shabbat posed a problem.

The bodies were being kept downtown, far from the Ohab Zedek community. The only nearby Jewish community was Stern College, Yeshiva University’s women’s division. A 20 year old student took the reins and organized a weekly schedule of students to sit shmirah in 4 hour shifts. For many weeks these young women dedicated their weekends, and the sancitity of their Shabbatot, to honor the victims of 9/11.

For more stories of Jewish heroism on 9/11, see the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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