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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 12:48 GMT
Long watch over WTC dead
Jessica Moore, Jessica Russak and Judith Kaplan
Singing the psalms: From left, Jessica Moore, Jessica Russak and fellow watcher Judith Kaplan
Young women are - unusually - taking part in a Jewish ritual to watch over the World Trade Center dead. Here, in our weekly Real Time series, two students reflect on their nights spent praying at the morgue.

When someone dies, Orthodox Jews believe the body must not be left alone until it is buried. This ritual, known as sitting shmira, typically involves an elderly man watching over another Jew for 24 hours. But as bodies are still being recovered from the ruins of the twin towers, this round-the-clock vigil has stretched into its third month.

First, Jessica Moore, of Stern College for Women, tells how she and her fellow students came to be involved; and below, Jessica Russak takes up the story:

The soul is in limbo in the period between death and burial, and usually the family will hire an elder to watch over the body. But in this case, because of the amount of time it's taking to get the bodies out and then hold them at the morgue, there's an ongoing shmira involving dozens of volunteers.


I'm not just praying for the Jewish victims, I'm praying for all those who died

Jessica Moore
During the week, it's usually someone from our temple on the upper west side; on the Sabbath we take over, from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening. They asked us to take part because devout Jews cannot ride on the Sabbath - making it a long walk from the temple - whereas our dorms are just a couple of blocks from the morgue.

We have about eight regular volunteers who do it almost every weekend, the main ones being me, Jessica Russak and Judith Kaplan - we do the night shifts.

Outside the morgue

When we arrive, we have to show a special ID badge to get past security. There's a line of tents outside the morgue - one's a chapel, another has Red Cross supplies, and the autopsy trailer is as far away from the street as possible.

Outside the city morgue stands the chapel tent, right, and a sealed lorry containing the victims' remains
The scene outside the city morgue
We usually sit in the chapel. There's pictures pinned to the walls, pictures kids have sent in praising the fire-fighters and policemen for their work. Right outside are three or four sealed morgue trucks where they are holding the bodies.

When I'm there, I'm not just praying for the Jewish victims, I'm praying for all those who died, for their families, and for society as a whole.

Thank God, I didn't know any of the victims personally, but I know lots of people who survived, and I know people who lost someone in the attacks. As big as New York is, everybody has been affected - there's just two degrees of separation.

Jessica Russak, who helps organise the rota of watchers, says bodies are still being recovered more than two months after the terror attacks:

They brought in two fire-fighters one night when I was there. The fallen rescue workers are the only ones they bring in in an ambulance with the sirens blaring and a huge motorcade - everyone else is brought in quietly.

Jessica Moore and Jessica Russak
Jessica Moore and Jessica Russak: Do what they can
The fire-fighters were in body bags on stretchers, draped in American flags. Everyone stopped and saluted for about 30 minutes, and I said a prayer.

Even though we've been doing this for weeks, there's no move yet to end the vigil. After all, they are still finding stairwells filled with bodies.

Imagine if we stopped and all of a sudden they found 100 bodies - probably some of them Jewish - and nobody would be there with them. How sad is that?

No shortage of watchers

Everyone in New York is trying as hard as they can to do what they can, be it to give blood, give money or give time. Girls keep volunteering for shmira, even for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Workers at WTC site
A fraction of the victims have been recovered
And when their shift has finished, they don't want to leave. Some try to finish the 150 psalms in the Book of Prayer, but I like to look at each one intellectually, to recite it first in Hebrew and then compare that to the English translation.

Jessica and Judith sing the psalms because that's how they feel the magic of the words. I don't sing, I mutter - I think my voice would scare away the troopers guarding the morgue.

My favourite is Psalm 130. Right before I walk out, I always say it. The core of it is a line about how we're longing for the dawn, the day in which we don't have to deal with trauma anymore.

List of the countries which lost citizens in the attacks
The bodies they pray over may or may not be Jewish
These people who were murdered missed this opportunity, it was ripped from them, and that makes me want to strive harder for it myself.

Sitting in that tent praying, I'm conscious of the fact that countless numbers of souls are just there.

I'm praying for them, and even though its supposed to be a selfless act as the dead can't pay you back, their souls are sitting there saying, 'Thank you'.


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20 Oct 01 | Americas
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