Weddings are normally joyous occasions, especially ones planned with the care and devotion Leona Zeplin put into her daughter’s simcha last month. The guests were invited, the catering hall rented and the flowers ordered. Everything was set to go.
But on the morning of the wedding, Zeplin, a loving and committed mother, began having second and third thoughts about the occasion, despite the love and affection between her daughter, Joslin, and Joslin’s fiancé.
“I thought this is insane. How can we have such a wonderful occasion without our son being here?” she recalled, referring to Marc Scott Zeplin, one of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center five years ago. Marc, 33 when he died, was also among an estimated 400 to 500 Jews who perished that day.
Despite such thoughts, Zeplin enjoyed herself at the wedding, dancing, smiling and laughing, with her husband, Leonard, and other relatives. “I had to do it, for my daughter,” she said.
The episode highlights the daily struggle Zeplin faces between sadness and despair, on the one hand, and hope and optimism, a struggle she shares with the nine other women in what may be the only Jewish bereavement group for people who lost children or spouses in the terror attack. The biweekly group, sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and its New York Jewish Healing Center, offers a combination of emotional, psychological and spiritual help, said the two therapists who lead it, Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub and Adena Greenberg.
In interviews conducted as the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approached, Zeplin and two other members called the group a solace, a safe haven and a life-saver for the camaraderie and insight it provides. They also discussed the bonds they share, as well as the differences in how each has coped with the trauma created by the attack.
Members often attend interfaith services, recite psalms and prayers, read passages from Jewish texts, and, at times, shed tears together, said Rabbi Weintraub, rabbinic director of JBFCS and the healing center. Many of their activities carry a certain poignancy, which was certainly the case when several members traveled to Israel last winter, meeting Jews and Arabs who have also lost loved ones to terrorism and violence.
A similar occasion took place one brisk, autumn day two years ago — an occasion the members still recall as uplifting — when they visited a bench in Central Park dedicated to Peter Kellerman, son of group member Joyce Gales, who was 35 when he died. Forming a circle near the bench, the women recited psalms, read a passage from Anne Frank, and, as they stood in the sun-dappled shade, reflected on nature.
But Gales, Zeplin and the third woman interviewed last week, Joan Klitzman, said they think of their children each day, as well as how they died. “I used to think I was going to make the world a better place,” said Klitzman, whose daughter Karen was 38 when she perished. “But now I’m happy if I make it through the day.”
The three women, all residents of Manhattan, also feel that at least some New Yorkers “just don’t get it,” as Gales put it. One remark she often hears, even from longtime friends, is that “it’s time to move on” or get over her grief, an experience shared by everyone in the group.
But “you never move on,” said Zeplin, who added that a parent she met in Israel “put it very well — it’s ‘a learning to live with.’ ” The phrase — “a learning to live with” — is now part of Zeplin’s vocabulary, too.
Because of such comments, all the group’s members feel “some sense of alienation,” said Greenberg, a consulting psychologist at JBFCS. “Living with loss is a lifelong process, and it doesn’t stop after a year or five years.”
It’s also one reason the women draw such sustenance from being with others who have experienced a similar loss. Nothing can displace the daily stress she has felt since 9/11, Zeplin said, but her involvement in the group, created shortly after 9/11, has certainly lessened it. Not only is there an immediate understanding among members, Zeplin continued, but there’s value in knowing “you’re not the only victim” and in “helping each other.”
Though none of the women are traditionally observant, each said the years since 9/11 have deepened their spirituality, even if their doubts about God have increased.
“I’ve had a lot of issues with why this happened, and I searched for answers by taking many classes in Kabbalah,” said Zeplin, whose husband is a principal at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. She hasn’t found any answers — particularly to the crucial question of what happens after death, she indicated — but her search continues.
Gales, raised in a traditional family, said she, too, “doubted God quite a bit after 9/11. I couldn’t comprehend why God would allow such a horrific event to happen to people so young” — people who were working hard; were being good parents, good spouses and good children; were, in short, doing everything they were taught to do. At the same time, she added, she has to believe that the victims of 9/11, including her son, are somehow together, in a better place.
“If there’s one quote from the Jewish tradition that keeps coming up in our group,” Rabbi Weintraub said, “it’s that he who has saved a life, it’s as if he has saved an entire world, and he who has destroyed a life, it’s as if he has destroyed an entire world.”
Beyond their shared connections and needs, the three women each derive comfort from having other children and grandchildren. In addition to Joslin, 35, the Zeplins have a daughter-in-law — Marc’s wife — and two grandsons. Gales has two daughters, 43 and 46, each of whom has three sons, and a daughter-in-law, Peter’s wife. And Klitzman, whose husband, Joseph, died 11 years ago, has a 43-year-old daughter — Karen’s twin sister — a son, 48, and another daughter, 50. She also has a grandson.
All three 9/11 victims — Marc Scott Zeplin, 33, Peter Kellerman, 35, and Karen Klitzman, 38 — worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the hardest hit firms on that day.
But as much as the three women share, all are different people “with their own coping mechanisms, styles and schedules,” said Rabbi Weintraub, a social worker. Those differences — accepted and often celebrated by each other — emerge in various ways.
Gales, for instance, acknowledged having backed away from friends and having grown less tolerant of small talk, both of which have increased the isolation she feels. “I don’t want to talk about the next sale at Bloomingdale’s,” she said, adding that there are so many deeper things to discuss. “When the talk turns frivolous, I feel like I’m jumping out of my skin.”
Zeplin, on the other hand, allows time for small talk, which, she said, mitigates more difficult feelings. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think about ‘The Thing.’ But what choice do I have?” she asked, especially if she wants to connect to others, including her family. The last thing she wants is to create her own little shell and withdraw from the world.
What makes that struggle especially hard for Zeplin is that, unlike the case with others in the group, the remains of her son were never recovered.
“It’s almost as if he disappeared,” she said, “as if he made a trip to Europe and never returned.” So instead of burying a body, the family gathered together some of Marc’s dearest possessions and other items they believed he would treasure — a tallit, a Rangers jersey, tickets to a Rangers game — placed them in an attaché case and buried it.
Regarding public events, Gales often resents the intrusion. “There’s never been anything private” about her son’s death, she said. But she also appreciates the idea that “the country remembers.” Americans should keep the tragedy in the forefront so that it doesn’t happen again.
Zeplin, meanwhile, regards public ceremonies as helpful. “Probably the best comfort I get is when I speak about my son, when I mention his name and when I speak about the positives,” she said. “It brings me back to a better place.”
The group’s members also differ politically, Rabbi Weintraub said, but all have an aversion to “the abuse of 9/11 for political reasons.” Though opinions vary on whether the war in Iraq represents that type of abuse, there’s no doubt regarding their disappointment — and, in some cases, anger — over what they consider government secrecy, lies and ineptitude, including the failure to prevent 9/11.
To varying degrees, the three women have also turned “grief into action,” in Zeplin’s words. Zeplin and her family have created the Marc S. Zeplin Foundation, which donates money to better the lives of children, a cause dear to her son’s heart. Similarly, the Klitzman family has established the Karen J. Klitzman Memorial Fellowship for the Elimination of Terrorism and the Resolution of Conflict at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where Karen attended graduate school.
Discussing her philosophy, Zeplin said she often imagines the advice she might get from her son, a strong, insightful man who “lived life to the nines,” if he were sitting across from her. She is certain he would tell her “to make the most of life” and “to live it the best I can” — words that now sustain her.