I was sitting at my desk at Broder when I got the call. Susan Wehle was on Continental flight 3407 which crashed the night before in Clarence Center. Rick Ellis, the executive director of Temple Beth Am called and asked if I would lead services at Temple Beth Am that evening because their rabbi, Irwin Tannenbaum, was out of state and unable to return until Saturday evening. I sat at my desk stunned and unable to comprehend the reality and depth of what Rick had told me. I began calling friends and colleagues in Buffalo asking their help and getting their ideas for the service.
That afternoon I went to Temple Beth a.m. to meet with Cantor Barbara Ostfeld Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein and members of Temple Beth Am to plan the service. We knew from the beginning that while we needed to remember Susan we needed to also remember that it was not her funeral nor was it a memorial service. We needed to remember it was Shabbat.
Thanks to the help of my colleagues and the support of my friends and family service that evening was profound. Following the service people did not want to be alone. They stayed in small groups or gathered together and went out as friends. Some of our friends gathered back at our home to talk about our feelings and to remember Susan. One of our friends brought a reporter from the New York Times who wanted to talk to us about what a close community Buffalo is and how we felt losing a colleague and friend, as well as the multiple connections we had with others on the flight. That evening proved to be cathartic for me.
The next morning I was on my way to TBZ when I got a call from another friend who said that the FBI was looking for a Jewish chaplain to come out to the crash site itself. I rearranged my schedule and shortly after noon arrived at the crash site. What I witnessed the Saturday and Sunday that I spent the crash site was inspiring, awesome, and humbling. Members of federal, state and local agencies and organizations, police and fire departments, aviation safety agencies and volunteers worked together in a manner that was cooperative and respectful. Everyone involved understood the magnitude of what they were doing and the need to preserve the dignity of the 50 who had died. Those who were working to recover the remains of the deceased did so in a manner which made me proud and which challenged me to remember to act in ways that would also bring honor to my community as well as the deceased.
Not once during the time I was at the site did I see people's egos or agendas get in the way. Everyone understood the task that was being asked of them. We were standing at the site, not only of destruction but, what was in reality the equivalent of a graveyard. Judaism teaches that the body of the dead once contained a holy soul, a spark of the divine. As such, even after death, when the soul has departed, we treat the body with the utmost respect and dignity. I can attest that everyone at the crash site not only met that obligation but exceeded it.
Over the next two weeks, the crash and the death of Cantor Wehle remained the topic of conversation in the community. Each of us in our own way spent time supporting and debriefing each other. Near the end of the second week the conversations began to lessen in frequency. That is when I began to feel the personal impact of what I had seen and participated in at the crash site. Thanks to the support of friends and my family especially Michele, Joel, Barbara and Steve, I was beginning to put in perspective the impact that crash and Susan’s death was having on me.
A week later however, it all came rushing back as we received word that Jonah Dreskin had died at the University at Buffalo. Jonah z'l was the son of Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. While I know and understand that the pain Jonah’s family was and is experiencing can only be overwhelming, the horror of his death at so young an age brought to the surface all the feelings I thought I had dealt with but still remained after the crash.
I do believe in the immortality of the soul and the peace of the afterlife. I believe that Jonah’s soul, Susan’s spirit, as well as the souls and spirits of all those who died on Continental flight 3407 are at peace. It is we who are left in this world who are not at peace. Perhaps all we can do is take a measure of comfort in knowing that they are at peace and focus on the warm glow of the memories they left behind and which we treasure.
May all their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life may they and we always be at peace.