I was driving down to our P2G community of Ofakim last week to meet with a visiting group from New Jersey. It was the day of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s funeral. When passing Kibbutz Erez, I couldn’t help recalling the traumatic experience that took place on the same route some 12 years ago:
We were two buses of MetroWest community leadership and public officials from New Jersey. We had all come to Israel to show solidarity with the people and the country in light of the second Intifada. It was also the first official visit to our newest partnership, Kibbutz Erez. Senator Lautenberg was the senior public figure in the group.
We were halfway between Erez and Ofakim and I was briefing the group about a new industrial park that was constructed but whose opening had been delayed (by the way, it recently opened. Never lose hope in the Negev). When I finished my presentation and asked if there were any questions, Gil Hoffman raised his hand.
Gil was then a young Jerusalem Post and New Jersey Jewish News journalist who was traveling with us. “Gil”, I said, “That is not nice. Let the guests ask the questions first.” In reply he waved a transistor-radio that he had with him and said “Do you all want to hear a report about a plane that just hit the World Trade Center?”
It was the afternoon of September 11, 2001. None of us will ever forget the moment. Gil has since become the senior political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. In his tribute to Senator Lautenberg last week, he recalled the same afternoon.
As Gil mentions, when we arrived at Ofakim a few minutes later, we couldn’t do anything but take out a few old TV sets and let the group watch the scene. I pulled out my own old camera and out of some historic sentiment took some photos of their glued, traumatized faces. These horrible photos have hung on my office wall ever since.
As you see in the picture, Senator Lautenberg tried to keep cool. After all, he was almost 80 and thought that by that time he had seen everything in life. Yet one could easily identify the shock on his face and the lack of energy in his body.
An hour later he felt that he could contribute more if he went to Jerusalem. We sent him by taxi with Gil. The rest of the group stayed over. The planned ethnic festival that we had scheduled in Merchavim became a spontaneous and most moving memorial ceremony. We commemorated the loss of so many innocent lives, we praised the relationship between Israel and the United States, and we applauded the partnership between our New Jersey Jewish community and our family in Israel.
The fact that the most senior Jewish U.S. Senator, the honorable Frank Lautenberg, was with us that day is so symbolic. May his memory be for a blessing forever.