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.

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.

Today, the Pykons’ home is filled with reminders of Ed — a folded, framed American flag that was draped over his casket sits prominently on a living room mantle, perched above several photographs of the family. On the wall is graphic print of 34 candles, representing each of the Fred Alger employees who died in the attacks. Jordyn herself is a “beautiful reminder” of Ed, says Jackie — she looks like him, and shares his humor and his insightfulness.

But Jackie is wary of forcing memories on her daughter: “I can’t tell her how to feel about her father. I can’t tell her how to memorialize his death. It has to be hers.”

On the 9/11 anniversary, Jackie typically spends time alone at home, watching on television as the names of the victims are recited at Ground Zero. Jordyn, on the other hand, goes to school. “It’s a good distraction,” she said.

“I was 6 months old so I don’t really remember the characteristics of my dad,” she said. “It’s not a day when I have a lot of memories, but it is a day to remember him and all the great qualities that he had.”

Brady Bunch: Jill Pila (center), whose husband was killed on 9/11, is the mother of Nicole (left) and Jamie (second from left). She married Jay Pila (left of center), father of Arielle (second from right) and Ross (right), and the pair merged their families. They are pictured here at Nicole and Ross’s b’nai mitzvah.
Courtesy of Jill Pila
Brady Bunch: Jill Pila (center), whose husband was killed on 9/11, is the mother of Nicole (left) and Jamie (second from left). She married Jay Pila (left of center), father of Arielle (second from right) and Ross (right), and the pair merged their families. They are pictured here at Nicole and Ross’s b’nai mitzvah.

While Jill Pila has given dozens of interviews about her late husband and spoke in her synagogue on the 10th anniversary — “I felt like people should hear personal stories about the event. I think it would give them more of a connection to that day,” she said — Jackie has kept a much lower profile. Her meeting with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky in advance of Jordyn’s bat mitzvah was the first that he had learned about the family’s connection to 9/11. He asked whether he should mention Ed at the ceremony.

“I said of course,” said Jackie. “I didn’t have any particular way in mind of how he would do that. I just said, ‘If his name echoes in that room, I believe he will hear it.’”

At the ceremony, the rabbi picked a subtle moment — when Jackie was called to the Torah — to say that she “was coming alone, but mentally and spiritually and emotionally not alone.” He also commended her for her success as a parent.

“We of course were celebrating and focusing on a young girl and her future,” said Kalmanofsky. “At the same time we were also paying a tribute to her mom for raising a daughter in an affirmative way after a terrible tragedy and we were thinking about the ancestors both near and far who are standing by her in a metaphorical way.”

“Honestly, I didn’t know, with so much of the emotion of that day, feeling so much joy and pride, if it would be too overwhelming for me [to say something myself],” said Jackie. The next day, at Jordyn’s New York City-themed party, she told Jordyn that her father would have been proud of her. “It was difficult for me not to have him there.”

Another 9/11 family opted against the coming-of-age ceremony altogether. Meg Bloom Glasser was introduced to Thomas Glasser by her sister, who was convinced that Meg, a talent agent, would find something to like in the investment banker who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian.

Thomas was the first Jewish man Meg had dated, but the two were not observant. After Thomas died, leaving Meg with two toddlers, she became even more turned off by religion, seeing it as the cause of the attacks. It was an “I told you so” moment, she said.

“We had already determined that the kids were not going to be bar mitzvahed,” she said. “People are human beings and I don’t see any point in separating people in terms of faith or religion or being born with a preconceived idea of what you have to be. That’s like giving a child a job before they are born.”

Living near observant Jews in Morristown, N.J., however, her son Luke, who is now 16 (Dylan is 14), sometimes felt jealous of his peers’ bar mitzvah parties. So Meg began to treat her sons to special vacations to Costa Rica and Rocking Horse Ranch in Highland, N.Y. These, she likes to joke, were their bar mitzvahs.

Yet while these vacations — and other family events — are meant to foster togetherness, they also highlight Thomas’s absence. “Imagine getting their license, going to college, all of it and their dad is not there to see it,” she said. “God knows, you never know. You have to do stuff together now.”

Like Jackie Pykon and Jill Pila, Meg aims to celebrate her children’s milestones in a way that honors her late husband’s memory. “Everything is a marker,” she said. “A bar mitzvah is just one marker for someone who is religious.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com Follow her on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff



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