U.S. Jewish community horrified by surreal events

NEW YORK — Even for North American Jews used to thinking about security issues at home — and confronting terrorist acts in Israel — the series of horrific acts that struck Tuesday came as a devastating, unimaginable blow.

"This is surreal. This whole situation seems surreal," said Martin Raffel, the associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose offices are located in midtown New York, a safe distance from the destroyed World Trade Center.

Before the initial shock wore off from the hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, Israel was offering help, U.S. Jewish groups were reacting with anger and Jewish communities across North America were holding prayer vigils.

Tuesday's attack was described as the worst on American soil since the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. By comparison, 2,400 people were killed on that day — Dec. 7, 1941 — which President Roosevelt described as a "date which will live in infamy."

Two Jewish groups — the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America — have offices near the World Trade Center, but spokesmen for both organizations said all employees are safe.

The Educational Alliance, a Jewish-run community center in downtown New York, treated people suffering from light injuries and shock.

"People were wandering in the streets coming from the World Trade Center, disoriented," said Ben Rodriguez, director of administration services for the Educational Alliance.

"People were streaming in for a few hours," he said, but by late afternoon, things had quieted down.

At the same time, information was leaking out — and arrests were already being made.

Authorities in Massachusetts identified five Arab men as suspects in the World Trade Center attacks, according to the Boston Herald newspaper.

Two of the men were brothers whose passports were traced to the United Arab Emirates, and one is believed to have been a trained pilot, according to the paper.

One Boston television station reported that authorities learned of four "Middle Eastern" men who arrived at Logan airport late and paid cash for one-way tickets on the flights to California that were later hijacked.

In addition, authorities seized a rental car containing Arabic-language flight training manuals at Logan International Airport, where one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center originated.

On Wednesday, police in Boston and South Florida took several people into custody who may be connected to the attacks.

Also on Wednesday, the United Jewish Communities canceled the Israel solidarity rally scheduled to take place in New York on Sept. 23.

A day earlier, a horrified nation was glued to television screens as fire raged and smoke billowed around the World Trade towers, both of which had collapsed by mid-morning.

Reports said that more than 250 passengers were on board the four hijacked planes at the center of the day's horrific events — two hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon and one crashed in Western Pennsylvania — but there were no reliable reports of the number killed or injured.

However, New York officials estimated that there could be thousands of casualties from the World Trade Center explosions alone.

In response, Jewish groups were establishing emergency relief mailboxes to collect donations to aid disaster victims. Press releases also strongly condemned the attack and "pledged to double check already tight security," in the words of one Jewish spokesman who asked not to be identified.

"This has been a tragic day for our country," the UJC said in a statement. "We express our condolences to the families of the individuals who lost their lives."

"We are outraged and unequivocally condemn today's terrorist acts against the United States," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement that was echoed by other groups.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the events would force the United States to step into Israel's shoes.

"My feeling is that the American government has always understood Israel's dilemma" in fighting terrorism, but "now America, too, will have to struggle with, 'How do you respond, how do you prevent'" this kind of thing, Foxman said.

Though no direct links have been established between the attacks and U.S. support for Israel, some worried about that prospect.

"Will the blame be placed on Israel? Will the blame be placed on the fact of American support?" wondered Foxman, who along with thousands of others across the country was stranded at an airport when the attacks occurred.

"The United States has been brutally attacked today, and we must consider that our nation is at war," David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.

But exactly who would be the target of that war remained unclear.

Spokesmen for several radical Palestinian groups denied reports that they were behind the attacks. Speculation focused on Osama bin Laden, but there was no initial evidence linking the Saudi terrorist mastermind to the attacks.

In New York — and elsewhere in North America, from St. Louis to Montreal — prayer vigils were held as early as Tuesday evening.

"Our community felt the need to get together for spiritual reasons," said Mark Finkelstein, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Des Moines, Iowa.