Jeffrey Wiener was a quiet man, with an unforgettable presence.
He and his wife, Heidi, weren’t parents. But every Saturday morning, he could be found in the Junior Congregation of Manhattan’s Brotherhood Synagogue, a program that teaches children to lead Shabbat services. Wiener would lend his voice to their efforts. As the children learned to recite Ashrei, the Amidah, the Mourner’s Kaddish, he chanted with them, and guided them.
“He brought a ruach, a spirit, to the place,” said Phil Rothman, executive director of the Brotherhood and a leader of the Junior Congregation. “Whatever he did, he did with grace and he did with meaning. He was the kind of person, if he asked you how you feel, he meant it. He wanted to know.”
And then, on a bright Tuesday in September, 2001, Wiener, who worked for a brokerage firm in the World Trade Center, became one of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks. He was 33 years old.
His loved ones, at the Brotherhood and beyond, mourned his loss. And they found themselves wondering whether there was a way to keep what had made him such a special part of the community — his commitment, his steadiness, his joy in learning, his love for children — alive. Maybe his legacy, they thought, could have a life of its own.
So they got to work. They created an annual service commemorating Wiener at Junior Congregation, and, to go with it, an award in his name for remarkable young leaders in the congregation, usually given to members in the year before their b’nai mitzvah. They built a children’s library dedicated to his memory.
And then something remarkable happened.
Awards given to pre-teens tend to be forgotten with age. Middle school honors can seem trivial to high schoolers. And as the years continue to pass, attention shifts to what may seem like more relevant, adult concerns. Not so when it came to the Jeffrey Wiener Achievement Award.
Instead, previous recipients started coming back, year after year, to see it given to a new student. They formed a community — a living, growing, intergenerational memorial to a man many of them barely remembered, and, 20 years after his death, even more never met.
The idea that had animated Wiener’s family and friends in the awful weeks after 9/11, that he could continue to be a living presence in the congregation that had meant so much to him, came to fruition. Today, on Saturday mornings during Junior Congregation, any attendee would tell you: Jeffrey Wiener’s ruach — his spirit — is still right there.
“Whenever it is a clear day, I look up to the sky, and it makes me think of Jeff, that he’s up there,” said Robin Wiener, Jeffrey Wiener’s older sister and only sibling. “I’m not a particularly religious person, but that day itself was a very clear day, and so those days remind me.”
“I referred to him as my future,” she said. “When he died, my future was taken away.” He was over four years younger than Robin, so the two didn’t connect as peers until he graduated college. After that, she said, they were very close.
Her brother, Robin said, was “very empathetic, very sweet and caring.” A Princeton graduate, Jeffrey Wiener loved to learn. At the time of his death, he was studying for an MBA. He was a reader, with a particular passion for science fiction and fantasy and a serious interest in religion. The last book he ever gave Robin as a present was by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
He loved leyning, or chanting services. He had no formal training as a cantor, but his deep knowledge of the melodic practice of prayer meant he became a default substitute cantor for the Brotherhood. And he had a wonderful sense of humor. Once, Rothman said, he showed up to Junior Congregation in a tuxedo, needing to attend a black-tie event afterward. To the children, it was a wonderful joke. Wiener didn’t bat an eye.
In the months after Wiener’s death, Robin, his widow Heidi and the rest of their family began to think about what it might look like to create a legacy for him. “I wanted something that was alive and grew,” Robin said. She reached out to Rothman, who felt Wiener’s loss keenly, both personally and on behalf of the congregation. After some conversation, he came up with the idea for the Jeffrey Wiener Achievement Award.
“I would pick one of these students who kind of exemplified all the values of Jeff, did a lot of reading, a lot of volunteering,” Rothman said. Each year in May, at the end of the Junior Congregation’s cycle — it runs from the early fall through the late spring — the congregation would host Wiener’s memorial service, and honor those students. Wiener’s family would present the awardees with a few books that combined their interests with his, and the awardees would conduct some part of the service, often reading Torah.
The first memorial service, in 2002, was “surreal,” Robin said. Hundreds of people attended: “People came up from Washington, all Jeff’s friends and business associates, some of my parents’ friends, Heidi’s friends.” Her and Wiener’s father spoke. She couldn’t bring herself to.
But as moving as the occasion was, and as grateful as Robin was to the Brotherhood for committing to sustaining her brother’s memory, she was conscious that she was a visitor in the community, not a part of it. “I just felt like I was there for Jeff,” she said.
Then Jeff’s spirit, his ability to help people feel rooted in a community, did its work. “As the years progressed, it became that I was doing this just as much for me,” Robin said. “This was almost a second family, this community. It became part of me, important to me individually, not only to me as the sister of Jeff.”
Morrisa Gold, now 30, was the second recipient of the award. She was only 10 at the time of the attacks, and, she said, “didn’t understand the gravity of it.” But she was, immediately, aware of Wiener’s loss. “I knew him from the children’s service, how graciously he would come in whenever we needed him,” she said. “I remember him being quiet but powerful, this comforting voice. He didn’t overpower the children, he very much knew it was the children’s time to shine.”
The award made a deep impression on her, in part because of how Wiener’s commitment to younger Jews reflected profound values in her own family. “My grandmother converted to Judaism,” she said, and attended the ceremony. “It was nice to show her that her decisions were not for nothing,” she said, but resonated through “the next generation and the next generation” — just as Wiener’s had.
Phil Rothman’s daughter Sara, now 27, was too young to have personal memories of Wiener. But growing up in Junior Congregation, she said, she saw his influence everywhere. She connected to his love of fantasy novels. By the time she won the award, she said, “I had just finished memorizing all the ‘Harry Potter’ movies,” after eating up the books. Her prize included a book tying “Harry Potter” to Judaism — her interests and Wiener’s, perfectly aligned.
But above all, she saw Wiener continuing to guide the congregation through the older students honored in his name. “I really got to look up to all the people who had won prior,” she said. After she won the award herself, she found that she still looked up to every new honoree — even though they were younger than she was — because she saw “bits of Jeff in all of them.”
Junior Congregation members usually age out of the program after their b’nai mitzvah. To the winners of the award, the annual commemoration service, and celebration of a new honoree, marked a meaningful way to return, and reconnect. Over time, it became more: an opportunity to share Wiener’s dedication to his community with the younger students, and a meaningful personal moment to reflect on his loss.
“When they came back, they would hug each other and hug Robin,” Phil Rothman said. “Their parents would sometimes come with them. You could see that it was genuine — that there was great appreciation for having been honored in this memory.”
“They talk about Jeff, and they talk about his memory, and how they’re living and breathing what was so important to Jeff,” Robin said. “That’s just a gift, that we can keep on doing that.”
But while the service is in many ways joyous, Gold said, it’s also “hard, every year.”
“I just go back to how I memorialize him in my mind, how it’s unfortunate that these children should have been able to pray with him,” she said.
“At the end of the day, what you’re remembered for is your impact on the community, and the love you bring to others,” she said.
This year, as the 20th anniversary of Wiener’s death approached, the Brotherhood’s springtime memorial looked a little different.
As in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was all on Zoom. But even with the congregation physically separated, the sense of an intense communal bond persisted. Robin was there, with her mother; her father passed away in 2019.
“I have two girls, and they often call me Pollyanna,” Robin said. She can’t help her optimism — a trait she and her brother shared. “So many good things came out of 9/11, which sounds horrible, I know,” she said. “But there were so many people who really just brought us comfort and helped us along and supported us.”
Now, that support has helped the community move forward through another crisis. In the middle of the pandemic, Robin said, the Zoom memorials have been particularly moving. “It was so amazing to see everyone that I hadn’t seen,” she said, and “to know that it can continue in one form or another, and that it will transform itself.”
Mathan Tsouros, 12, won this year’s prize. In the time of COVID, the award came with unique lessons. It taught Tsouros something about resilience, and the power of making a choice and sticking with it. “Even during a hard time, after making a really strong commitment, times will be hard, but eventually you can still overcome it,” he said.
He took that lesson both from Wiener’s life, and from the way his community has honored him. “I’m happy I did a good deed to honor his memory, and to live it on,” Tsouros said. “The commitment I made was to be a role model” to “all the future generations in the congregation.”
When he received his award over Zoom, the alumni were there, just as usual.
“You could see the bond,” Rothman said. “You could see the camaraderie among them.” Looking at the screen, at the joy and companionship of the young people inspired by Wiener’s spirit, that sense of continuing life — ever growing, ever touching new hearts and minds — was profound.
“If Jeff was still alive, I would say, thank you so much for teaching all these generations,” Tsouros said. “He was able to teach so many people. He was the one who kept showing up.”