09/30/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

The Us and Them and the Days of Awe

On Jewish High Holidays Starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, I think about a lot of things: Mr. Rabinowitz, my bas mitzvah coach handing me a slice of apple dipped in honey and saying, "A sweet apple for a sweet new year," for instance.

But I also think a lot about the "us and them."

The "us and them services." This is the break during the Yom Kippur service when the spouses and immediate family of those who have died stay to pray for them, while those who have not lost someone leave the room. Naturally, all the kids leave and the grown-ups stay.

That was my favorite part. We kids were allowed to escape the boredom of the service and run around in the grass out front, or, when we were older, sneak cigarettes behind the shul.

What this time signified to me, more than anything, was the separation of the young and carefree from the old and sad. We were the "us," chasing each other through the poorly tended grass, laughing. They were the "them," bent, teary-eyed and serious, chanting in Hebrew and whispering silent messages to their lost loved ones.

In September, a little more than 20 years ago, when I stood to leave with the young adults, the rabbi looked over and motioned for me to sit. My mother had passed away a few days before Rosh Hashanah, and I had become an official member of the "them" club.

September became not only the Jewish New Year but also the anniversary of my mother's death, her yartseit. Then, just when I didn't think the services could be any more loaded, Sept. 11th happened.

In between flipping burgers for first responders at Ground Zero and taking wheelbarrows filled with Gatorade to what they called the "pile," the Army Chaplain called me over for an impromptu Rosh Hashanah service.

I never knew his name, I watched this rabbi in camouflage and yarmulke build a podium out of crates to give a service for soldiers and others who gathered to hear him blow the shofar. As the mournful ram's horn resonated among the remnants of broken buildings and broken hearts, I was as close to God as I suppose I will ever get.

That Yom Kippur, as I do every year, I attended services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, CBST. I always thought of it as the gay and lesbian synagogue, but really it's a synagogue for everyone -- gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, who cares? All are welcome.

Since thousands come for the service, CBST rents a hall in the Javits Center, which that year was also the command center for "the disaster."

The faithful saw a barrage of state troopers and police on their way to their Javits shul. Most of the side streets leading into the center were blocked off by police barricades, and helicopters buzzed overhead. It felt as though we were at war.

Every imaginable kind of person was at that service: black men in yarmulkes, white lesbian mothers of Asian babies, elderly men escorting elderly wives, young Jewish men with their boyfriends and their mothers, hipsters in shaved heads and facial piercings, devout Jews wearing tallis and their own embroidered yarmulkes ...and I.

It wasn't until the end of services, during the rabbi's sermon, that the real magnitude of what we were all feeling hit me.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum spoke.

"When services began, I told you that this was our largest Yom Kippur attendance ever, at least 4,000 people, but since then, we have added chairs. There are now 6,000 people here tonight!"

She had the front row stand to look out at us in the back, had the side rows stand to look into the center, had the back row stand to look toward the front, and only when the full knowledge of how many of us were standing in this place hit did she say exactly what were all thinking.

"This is something close to the amount of people missing in The World Trade Center." At that time, the death toll was thought to be 6,000.

Many of us started to cry. I was one.

She went on, trying to find the words to help make sense of this unfathomable tragedy and told us that our broken hearts were part of who we are now.

Today, I think of that 2001 high holiday during the "us and them" portion of the service. Not only do I not cringe at the call for remembrance of the lost, but I look forward to it. It's the one time during the year when everyone around me is freely allowed to simply mourn, honor, remember and give voice to loss.

I also know now I can be among the "them" and still run in the grass, laugh, feel joy and be silly. It's all part of the package.

Our broken hearts are part of who we are now.

And so is our joy.

L'shanah tovah.