13 Years Later, Jewish Children of 9/11 Come of Age

How Do You Celebrate B’nai Mitzvah Without Dad?

Jill Pila and James Gartenberg pose with their daughter Nicole before James’s death on 9/11.
Courtesy of Jill Pila
Jill Pila and James Gartenberg pose with their daughter Nicole before James’s death on 9/11.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published May 19, 2014, issue of May 23, 2014.
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Next February, Jamie Pila, a hockey-playing middle school student with a mane of curly brown hair, will step up to the bimah at Temple Har Shalom in Warren, N.J. and become a bat mitzvah in front of her mother, sister, stepfather and two stepsiblings.

Missing will be the biological father she never met. Her namesake, James Gartenberg, died on September 11. That day, he was moving out of his office at real estate firm Julien J. Studley, Inc. at 1 World Trade Center and into a Midtown building. James became trapped in the towers and called ABC-TV: “I want to tell anybody who has a family member in the building that the situation is under control,” he told viewers before he died. “Please, all family members, take it easy.”

[Listen to Jill Pila’s account of 9/11 in her own words.]

Six months later, his wife, Jill Pila, gave birth to their daughter Jamie, with a picture of James propped at her bedside in the hospital room.

Now 12, Jamie is one of the last 9/11 children who will undergo the coming-of-age ceremony. Her bat mitzvah represents the end of an era. Thousands of children lost their parents in the attacks; each family and faith group marks the event in its own way. On May 21, the National September 11 Museum on the World Trade Center site will open to the public. For the Jewish community at large, this moment has added significance: 13 years after 9/11, the children of Jewish victims will all have crossed the spiritual threshold into adulthood.

Jill Pila embraces her daughters Jamie (left) and Nicole in their Warren, N.J. home.
Naomi Zeveloff
Jill Pila embraces her daughters Jamie (left) and Nicole in their Warren, N.J. home.

“The fact is that we will not have this particular way of remembering again,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “These kids are making a profound statement that ‘I am here and that no matter what, even though I know better than any of my friends the absurdity of life and the fragility of life — how the whole thing hands on a thread — I’m taking responsibility to make this world better.’”

What distinguishes these 9/11 children from their older counterparts is that they never truly knew their parents. While individuals who were adolescents on 9/11 had the capacity to understand the event as it happened — and the ability to draw on the memories of the lost relationship —these children were in some cases literally born into loss, and they relate to it differently.

Jamie’s sister Nicole Pila was just 2 and a half when her father died, but even then she was acutely aware of his absence. She asked her mother to play her parents’ wedding video so that she could see James laughing and dancing; when her mother pushed her stroller down city streets, she asked if her father might be found in a nearby building. Today, Nicole tears up at the mention of 9/11.

Jamie, on the other hand, is outwardly stoic. “Nicole gets more emotional about it, she was there,” said Jamie, when asked about her relationship to 9/11. “I didn’t know him.”

Children who were very young on 9/11 have “a sense of loss without being able to pinpoint what that loss is about,” said Charles Goodstein, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, who coordinated an outreach program after 9/11. “It is much vaguer and unreal, and as a result much more difficult to deal with.” In this regard, the young children of 9/11 victims are like the descendants of Holocaust survivors, “Even if they had little knowledge of the event, they still carry something with them, transmitted from one generation to the next.”

The bar or bat mitzvah can heighten that sense of loss. “It is a double-edged sword,” said Goodstein. “To a certain degree, there is pride, but there is also sadness and absence. There is the guilt of having survived to get to that stage of life. There is an extra burden that the kid is carrying that is not always recognized or articulated. The bar mitzvah crystallizes a lot of these kinds of issues.”

Jamie’s family is still deciding what role her biological father will play in her bat mitzvah, beyond mentioning the scholarship fund in his name at the University of Michigan. Part of the challenge is that there are no photographs of Jamie and James together for the montage the family will create for the party.

James figured prominently in Nicole’s bat mitzvah in 2010, which was held in conjunction with that of her stepbrother Ross Pila. Nicole dedicated her “mitzvah project” to her father by volunteering at a soup kitchen and giving a portion of the money she was gifted to the University of Michigan scholarship. In her d’var Torah, Nicole described James as a “kind, giving person who always thought of others, the exact opposite of the character Korach in my Torah portion.” (Korach launched a revolt against Moses after the exodus from Egypt.)

At the tropical rainforest-themed party after the ceremony, Nicole and Ross paid homage to their patchwork family. Jill met Jay Pila, a father of two whose wife died from complications during a surgery, on JDate in 2003. They married less than a year later, merged their families, and moved to Warren, N.J. (Jill was living in New York City, and Jay was in Basking Ridge, N.J., a nearby town.)

“We felt that his late wife and my husband were pulling the strings,” said Jill. The photo montage at the b’nai mitzvah party began with pictures of Ross and Nicole with their lost parents and culminated in a presentation of the new family set to the Brady Bunch theme song. “It was a way to honor the past and say now we are moving on,” said Jill.

At Jordyn Pykon’s bat mitzvah, which was held in late March at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the family left it to the rabbi to mention her father, Ed Pykon, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. That choice reflected a broader sensibility about the loss. Jackie Pykon, Jordyn’s mother, is firm that her husband’s death is part of Jordyn’s story, but not the defining fact of her life.

Jackie first met Ed at the Osprey, a bar on the Jersey Shore on a Fourth of July, when they were just 22 and 23, respectively. The couple dated for five years, married, and purchased a home in Princeton Junction, N.J., where they planned to raise three children. On September 11, Ed went to work at the World Trade Center, where he was a senior vice president at Fred Alger Management, an investment firm. Jordyn was 6 months old at the time.

After the attacks, Jackie quit her job in human resources and devoted herself to raising Jordyn full time. “I threw my whole life into it,” she said. The small family moved away from Princeton Junction and to the Upper West Side, where Jackie felt less conspicuous as a single mother, and where she found an unexpectedly vibrant community in Jordyn’s Chabad preschool.

As the years progressed, Jackie struggled to reveal to Jordyn what had happened to her father. Early on, she would only say that he had died. Then, she told her it was in a fire in a building. Then, she explained that it was terrorism. Finally, she linked Ed’s death to 9/11. “I was always very nervous that other children would know more, and would tell her things before I was ready for her to know,” she said.


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