Avremel Zelmanowitz, of blessed memory, was a Torah-observant Jew who worked in the World Trade Center. When the terrorist attack on September 11th caused people to flee the building, he lost his own chance to escape by staying behind with his Christian friend and colleague, Ed Beyea, who was confined to a wheelchair due to a paralysis known as "quadriplegia." Both men lost their lives, but the story of Avremel's love and devotion to his friend is one that conveys a life-giving message to all humanity.
His family, neighbors, and Jewish friends affectionately called him by his Yiddish name, "Avremel," and his Gentile friends and coworkers called him "Abe?. His Hebrew name "Avraham" (Abraham) serves as a reminder of his loving nature, for just as the first Avraham was known in the world for his love of humanity and his devotion to "chesed" - acts of lovingkindness, so too, Avraham Zelmanowitz was known in his circles for his love of humanity and his devotion to chesed. He had a remarkable way of connecting to people and of finding a common bond with individuals of diverse personalities and backgrounds.
Avremel never married, and he shared a house with his brother Yankel (Jack) and his family. He was a caring and loving uncle to his brother's children, and he was devoted to his entire family, including his aging parents. In a tribute to Avremel, one family member wrote:
"He was an integral part of the Zelmanowitz household, indispensable for all that he gave of himself, both emotional and practical...As someone who mattered to, and was indeed needed by, so many, Avremel was a "family man" in every sense of the word. At the same time, he had his own life, his Torah classes, his varied interests, and a job and friends to which he was characteristically devoted. It was one such friend who was to be a player in Uncle Avremel's final, magnificent act of compassion, which has already served to inspire us, even as our hearts break with our loss."
When the tragedy occurred, Avremel was age 55, and his friend, Ed Beyea, was age 42. Ed became disabled after a diving accident at age 22, but he managed to work 14 years at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Both he and Avremel were program analysts who worked on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center. Avremel had joined the office two years after Ed was hired, and the two became very close friends. They both loved books and music - often trading books and tapes, and they both served as the special uncle of their respective families. Like Avremel, Ed had no children of his own, but he was a father figure to his two nephews after their father died. Both friends had a great sense of humor, although Ed was robust and outgoing, while Avremel was the more quiet of the pair. In their tributes to Avremel, friends and acquaintances have written of the calm Avremel exuded, the sense of peacefulness that surrounded him.
Ed needed 24-hour nursing assistance, but otherwise led as normal a life as possible - taking the subway to work, using a mouthpiece to tap the keys on his computer, and keeping himself busy with books, movies, TV and dinners with friends. His most regular dining companion was Avremel, whom he called "Abe." Avremel's sister-in-law, Chavie, describes how the different needs of the two men required some planning: "If Ed was going to make the arrangements, he'd make sure it was kosher, and if Abe was going to make the arrangements, he'd make sure it was wheelchair-accessible. They always had each other's best interests at heart."
On the morning of the terrorist attack, Ed's health aide had gone to pick up breakfast on the 43rd floor when the plane struck the tower. She hurried back to the 27th floor and found the two friends waiting for help in the stairwell. The aide, age 69, was affected by smoke from the higher floors, so Avremel told her to go on ahead. Ed wanted to wait until he could be securely carried down by several rescue workers, as it was dangerous for someone with his disability to be moved. Avremel wouldn't allow his friend to wait alone when everyone else was fleeing the building, and he stayed with him. Both men called their families to let them know that they were okay, and it seems that with the help of some people, they were able to make it down to the 21st floor before the building collapsed.
In the days that followed, as the two families searched for information about Avremel and Ed, the media learned about Avremel's selfless act, and the story began to spread all over the world. President Bush, in his national prayer address to the American people, referred to Avremel's act of loving kindness as one of the many "eloquent acts of sacrifice" that were demonstrated by Americans during this crisis. Avremel's family received letters from people all over the world who were moved and inspired by his love and loyalty to his friend. The most poignant were letters from disabled people and/or their caretakers. One woman wrote, "Do you realize what a miracle Abe was for his coworker? Loneliness and fear can't exist if you share love with someone."
In a moving tribute to Avremel that appeared in the Orthodox Jewish newspaper, Hamodia (Nov. 16, 2001), writer Naftoli Weiss mentioned a verse that Avremele and other observant Jews chant three times a day, "Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9), and he commented:
"It seems that when Avremel said these words day in, day out, he really understood his prayers. He endeavored to inculcate into his own being the ways of Hashem, Whose kindness extends to all of humanity, Who doesn't prefer to save 'important' people, Who doesn't discriminate between human beings."
Naftoli Weiss also urged us to be inspired by Avremel's example and to empathize more with people who have disabilities. We also need to take various practical steps that can make their lives easier, such as making our homes, synagogues, and community centers wheelchair-accessible; moreover, we should include them in our plans and social events . It is especially important to invite them to our Shabbat and Festival meals. If they are homebound, then we need to ensure that they have visitors and are able to celebrate Shabbat and the Festivals properly.
Chumie Zelmanowitz, age 12, in a tribute to her Uncle Avremel, wrote:
"In the days of Avraham Avinu, Abraham, the first Jew, there was a king called Nimrod. He was very powerful. He conquered many nations, and no doubt killed many people. Nimrod said his god was fire. When Avraham refused to believe in this false god, Nimrod threw Abraham into a fiery furnace. Our Uncle Avremel was also thrown into a fiery furnace, but his supreme act proclaimed to the world that his God was a God of kindness, and he would not forsake Him. He gave his life in a totally selfless way to help another person, and sanctified the Name of God before all mankind. I hope that in some small way I should be able to behave in my life with the same chesed as my uncle."
To perpetuate the memory of their beloved brother, the Zelmanowitz family has established the Abe Zelmanowitz Fund, a tax-exempt tzedakah (fund for those in need). Contributions can be sent to: The Abe Zelmanowitz Fund, 1434 East 35th Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11234.
May the life and deeds of Avremel Zelmanowitz - Avraham Yosef Ben Shlomo Zalman - inspire each of us to develop a deeper love and appreciation for other human beings.
Postscript: In the late spring of 2002, the remains of Avremel were found, and the burial took place in the ancient cemetery on Mount Olives, Jerusalem.