I was not born in Buffalo. But I am a Buffalonian. In one week in February, five years ago, I learned everything I needed to know about the compassion, resilience and spirit of the people of Western New York and why I was so happy to have made my new home in this area.
In the summer of 2008, my wife, Ashirah, and I, and our then 7-month-old daughter, came up from the Philadelphia area so that I could take a position as rabbi of what was then known as Temple Sinai, and now is called Congregation Shir Shalom. Being from the Northeast, we knew about snow, but still looked with trepidation at our first Buffalo winter. And we were not disappointed. While not as cold as the current year, there were many days of below-freezing temperatures that year as well.
Quickly I learned about what a well-connected community this was. By the end of my first month, I had already met the mayor, Byron Brown, and the school superintendent, James Williams. I also had great fun getting to know the leaders of our small but boisterous Jewish community.
One of the first to welcome me to the area was Cantor Susan Wehle, whose broad smile and passion about life and community was hard to miss. She worked for one of the neighboring synagogues, but we had many opportunities to lead services and work in other capacities together. Her enthusiasm swept you up and she introduced me to many of the religious leaders, Jewish or not, that she worked with in the area.
We seemed to have many of the same interests and I hoped we would be able to work together for many years in the future.
That all changed on Feb. 12, a cold and windy Thursday night. Returning from a vacation in Costa Rica, Susan was on a connecting Continental flight from Newark, N.J., a flight we now refer to as simply 3407, a flight that took the lives of 51 good people, and whose loss still stings today.
News of the tragedy started filtering in Friday morning. Immediately I saw people mobilizing. I spent the majority of that day at Susan’s synagogue comforting members. Then, working through our Buffalo Board of Rabbis, Jewish Family Services of Western New York, the Network of Religious Communities of Western New York and, of course, the local chapter of the American Red Cross, I was part of the pastoral team reaching out to the grieving families.
The cooperative nature of this community and its determination to help was unbelievable. Many of the traveling Red Cross crisis team members noted how different Buffalo was from other areas they had worked. To coin a Yiddish phrase, Susan would have been kvelling.
On the Friday night after the crash, many of the area synagogues came together in Susan’s memory. We tried our best to sing the prayers, but without her voice, the traditional prayers felt hollow. Cantor Wehle had always been the person who comforted us. Without her loving presence, we had no one to wipe away our tears. Even five years later, it still is just as painful to know she is longer with us.
However, when I think back on that fateful night, I also remember the way it brought all of our communities together. Just like Susan did in her lifetime.
Buffalo was her city. Buffalo is now my city and I could not be more proud to live in this place.