‘Hallelujah’: Local voices express pride, relief at news of bin Laden’s death — and remembrance of 9-11 victims

Rabbi Susan Talve

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As he woke up Monday morning, Clayton resident Bill Goodfriend checked the news. What he saw amazed him. He immediately went out to put up his American flag.

“It’s a great day to be an American,” said the Central Reform congregant. “Everybody can be really proud.”

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Goodfriend, 50, is a native of New York City, the metropolis hit hardest by the massive terrorist strikes that rocked the country 10 years ago this September. He wasn’t living there at the time but recalls vividly trying to contact loved ones afterward. His father, now 79, found himself with countless others walking across the Queensboro Bridge, part of a miles-long trek out of a wounded, paralyzed Manhattan.

Goodfriend is clear about his feelings toward the death of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind behind the attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people.

“One of the great haters of all time has been taken out,” he said. “That can’t help but benefit everybody else who is trying to do something decent in the world.”

Pride is one of many emotions registered by St. Louisans as news spread on Sunday night and Monday morning of the end of the infamous Saudi jihadist, who was killed by American Special Forces in a dramatic weekend raid. But locals also found themselves grappling with other feelings ranging from satisfaction at the dispensation of justice, sorrow for terror victims, uncertainty over the future and ambivalence at how to feel over the bloody end to a decade-long hunt for the most wanted man on Earth.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon of Traditional Congregation had a quick response when asked for his reaction.

“Hallelujah,” he said.

Gordon said that while nothing can bring back the men and women who have been lost in terror attacks or the ensuing military operations launched in response, he feels bin Laden’s death will have a positive effect in furthering perceptions around the world that dictatorship and violence have consequences and right can win in the end. He said good people must stand up in the face of evil.

“When people feel that ultimately they can achieve justice, it strengthens our resolve to fight for justice,” Gordon said. “When we feel that justice is delayed, it often affects our mood. We become frustrated, look for other means and give up.”

At Central Reform Congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve had mixed feelings about the moment. She noted that it was good bin Laden could not instigate any further terrorist acts but she lamented the prospect of an “imperfect world” in which killing seems to beget more killing.

“I think he was responsible for so much suffering that we have to be glad that he can’t perpetrate any more hate,” she said. “But the fact that we are living in a world where we’re still solving our problems with violence is not a cause for celebration. It’s cause for a deep look at how we as a human society are still using violence and responding to violence with violence.”

She spoke of the Torah story that tells of blotting out Amalek and puzzled over its meaning.

“Is it that we blot out the Amalek inside ourselves and that’s the best way or is it literally to blot out people like Amalek, like Osama bin Laden?” she asked.

Talve said she hopes the terrorist’s death will give the families he harmed some measure of closure.

At Congregation B’nai Amoona, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose found himself conflicted over how to mark the violent close of an evildoer’s life.

“I’m a little bit betwixt and between,” he said. “I guess my overarching sentiment is that on some level, I hope that it impacts in a positive way those in the Islamic world who might want to move in directions of radicalism as opposed to directions of moderation and the quest for peace.”

Still, he said he was troubled by the prospect of allowing himself to become celebratory over the incident.

“There’s a wonderful verse of scripture that says when your foe falls, you shouldn’t rejoice,” he said. “I’m really struggling because I want on some level to follow that scriptural dictum.”

For Susie Schulte, bin Laden’s end has a meaning that hits close to home. She and the rest of her family have just returned from Texas where a building on a military base was being named in honor of her daughter Roslyn, a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force who perished two years ago in a roadside bomb explosion in Kabul.

“From a very personal perspective it added a nice culmination to a weekend that honored Roz and other intelligence officers,” said the Temple Israel congregant. “From a very personal point of view, it was certainly a good cap to what has been a very meaningful and reflective weekend for us.”

Schulte expressed pride in the work of the Navy SEAL team and the president. She said the operation’s result was good news but would still take some time to absorb.

“There’s a sense of gratification that justice has been done,” she said but noted that terrorism would likely continue. “It obviously does not end the work that needs to be done.”

Dr. Ghazala Hayat, chair of the Public Relations Committee for the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis, is originally from Pakistan and has actually been to the town near Islamabad where bin Laden was found. In fact, her brother happened to be born there.

She hailed bin Laden’s death as good news and said she believes the Pakistani government should do more to explain bin Laden’s presence near the capital. Unfortunately, she believes the jihadist’s demise will be unlikely to end the overall fundamentalist threat.

“I don’t know if we would have had a different outcome eight or nine years ago but right now, while it has been a big blow, we just have to continue the fight against terrorism,” she said. “because the ideology and philosophy is rooted in a lot of places in different parts of the world.” 

Responding to a request for comment, the local Catholic diocese released a statement from the Vatican attributed to the Holy See press office.

“Osama bin Laden, as is known, claimed responsibility for grave acts that spread division and hate among the peoples, manipulating religion to that end,” it said. “A Christian never takes pleasure from the fact of a man’s death, but sees it as an opportunity to reflect on each person’s responsibility, before God and humanity, and to hope and commit oneself to seeing that no event become another occasion to disseminate hate but rather to foster peace.”

In Olivette, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion said the president’s decision to take down bin Laden was all to the good. He quoted Proverbs 11:10 (“When the wicked perish there is joy”). Expressing appreciation to the armed forces, he compared bin Laden to Haman from the Purim story, particularly the section where Haman is leading Mordecai on a horse.

“Haman asked [Mordecai] ‘Aren’t you supposed to treat your enemy with kindness?’ The Talmud said that Mordecai responded by saying ‘This doesn’t refer to you,'” said Smason.

Nancy Lisker, regional director of the local American Jewish Committee office said the AJC congratulated American forces on the operation’s success calling it an example of the United States’ “determination to defend our country.”

“This is a man with the blood of thousands of people on his hands so this is welcome news,” she said.

Lisker termed it a “bittersweet celebration” since it will not return victims of terror to loved ones and notes that the future of bin Laden’s far-flung terrorist organization is unclear.

“AJC believes that much remains to be understood of course, such as the future of Al Queda without its longtime leader as well as the fact that he was hidden in plain sight in the heart of Pakistan very close to Islamabad,” she said.

Jay Umansky, president of the St. Louis region of the American Jewish Congress, was actually in New York Sunday when news of bin Laden’s death broke. The city was one of the sites where joyous displays broke out to mark the news, though Umansky saw a slightly different reaction when people took to the streets in the suburb where he stayed.

“There were people that felt a need to be with one another, not necessarily in a celebratory way but I think this was a historic event,” he said. “People remember where they were at certain moments in time.”

He said he hoped people would view it as a victory of good over evil.

“The death of anyone, in my mind, should not be a cause for celebration,” he said. “What should be a cause for celebration is the opportunity for good to take root and people to recognize that this is an opportunity to expand on the concept of brotherhood and peace.”

Richmond Heights teenager Abby Abrams said she had a strange mix of thoughts.

“Mostly, it was an odd sense of relief,” she said. “Usually, you don’t celebrate someone’s death no matter who they are but with this, because he’s taken so many lives and been such an emblem for terrorism throughout the world, everyone is celebrating.”

She thinks that Americans and other nations may find a renewed confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to keep its commitments and achieve its goals.

Abrams remembers where she was on September 11 – her third grade classroom. Now a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, the 18-year-old recalled the frightening events of the day including her teacher’s explanations and the fears of classmates who had relatives in New York.

“It’s been a part of our childhood,” she said.