Memorial for a Lost Firefighter Shows Grief Knows No Bounds


Study the faces of the hundreds of firefighters who perished in the terror attack on the World Trade Center and you will see the history of New York writ in ladder companies and battalions.

Of the 343 to die, most seem to be Irish and Italian, the Catholic sons of the city's fire-fighting legacy. Yet not all are Among the pages upon pages of victims published in newspapers last weekend, tucked between Lee Fehling of Engine 235 and Michael Fiore from Rescue Unit 5, is a mustachioed man with slightly shaggy hair, kind eyes and a charmingly crooked smile.

He is Alan Feinberg, 48, from Battalion 9. And he is one of an estimated six Jewish firefighters to perish in the terror attack on the World Trade Center.

Not that firefighters ever paid much attention to who was Jewish, or who Catholic or black or Hispanic. Such labels mean nothing, firefighters say, when your job means banding together to save lives and risk your own.

The only groups New York's firefighters fall into these days are the living and the dead. And after two agonizing weeks of waiting, families of missing firefighters are beginning to draw that line.

After listening to her conscience and consulting the Fire Department rabbi, Feinberg's wife Wendy decided to hold a memorial service on Tuesday for her husband, even though no trace of his body has been found.

"This is a very hard decision to even have a memorial service," said Mrs. Feinberg, 45. "But 14 days of this is not normal," she said. Shivah, the traditional period of Jewish mourning, lasts seven days.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Jewish chaplain for the Fire Department and vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, was to officiate at the service in Marlborough, N.J., where Mrs. Feinberg lives. "I'm so grateful that the rabbi is coming to do the services," Mrs. Feinberg said.

This is not likely to be the last memorial service Rabbi Potasnik will attend.

"We're arranging two funerals right now, and there will probably be three more," said Paul Tauber, president of Ner Tamid, the Brotherhood of Jewish Firefighters. Founded in 1925, it has an estimated 450 members. In addition to Feinberg, another member of Ner Tamid, Stephen Belson from Battalion 7, also perished.

(Rabbi Alvin Kass, the New York Police Department's Jewish chaplain, said that to the best of his knowledge, no Jewish members of the force perished on September 11.)

"He wasn't a fireman when I married him. It was something he always wanted to be," Mrs. Feinberg said, keeping up her sense of humor. "He was a garment-center salesman. Sound a little bit more Jewish?"

Her husband was a "fun-loving guy who never grew up," Mrs. Feinberg said. "Alan loved cars," she said. "My mother used to say if he took as good care of me as he did his cars she'll never have to worry about me."

The Feinbergs married 23 years ago in Roslyn, Long Island. Their children, Tara, 18, and Michael, 15, celebrated their bat and bar mitzvah at Temple Shaarei Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Manalapan, N.J. Tara is a freshman at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Michael a sophomore at Marlborough High School.

"As a Jewish girl, honestly, I didn't know anyone who was a firefighter," Mrs. Feinberg said. When she was growing up, "there were doctors and lawyers and accountants. Everyone was home for the weekend and went out on Saturday nights."

Even now she said that she didn't really know what drew her husband to be a firefighter. "He loved to help other people, that was 100% his need," Mrs. Feinberg said. "He just had that need that I'm not really sure I understood."

Returning from the beach once they passed a car accident. "He had those gloves on immediately," she said. "He loved it. I'd say 'why don't you mind your own business?' and he'd say, 'no, no, no.'"

In the wake of the terror attack, however, Mrs. Feinberg said that she was beginning to understand why her husband was so devoted to the department. "The brotherhood, the family is so tight," Mrs. Feinberg said. "I can see how people can fall in love with their job. It's not a business, it's a family. They would die for each other."

"The greatness of the Fire Department is that in all of their work they see themselves as part of an organization," said Rabbi Potasnik. "They are truly committed to saving human life, which they see as their calling. They never ask denominations. It's so contrary to what they're about."

Feinberg spent 17 years on Engine 40, ladder 35, based at 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. For the past two years he was an aide on Battalion 9, also in Manhattan.

In a twist of fate that has baffled her since the terror attack, Mrs. Feinberg worked at the World Trade Center for 17 years. She was first employed by Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services company on the upper floors of Tower 1 which lost 730 of its workers, and later worked for a company on the 25th floor.

In 1996 she left to pursue the career she had studied for: teaching kindergarten. For two years she has taught kindergarten in Perth Amboy, N.J.

The firefighter's schedule meant that Feinberg had time to spend with his kids. He coached his son's baseball team and his daughter's soccer team. Growing up in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn, Feinberg was a track star at Lafayette High School, Mrs. Feinberg said.

"Since my mother worked 12-hour days in New York City, my dad became Mr. Mom," Tara wrote in a college admissions essay reprinted in the New York Post last week. He came to her kindergarten class for show-and-tell and all the children tried on his hat and boots.

Yet Tara also wrote that she worried constantly about her father. "I would cry hysterically when my dad had to leave for work, wondering if this would be the last time I ever saw him," she wrote. "Why couldn't my dad have a safe job, like an accountant or a computer analyst?"

In addition to his immediate family, Feinberg is survived by a sister and his parents, who live in Brooklyn. Feinberg's father, Harold, worked for the Sanitation Department, and his mother, Sylvia, for New York University. Both are in their 80s.

While it will be difficult to have closure, Mrs. Feinberg said that she got "a lot of comfort" from the Fire Department. "The chief called to tell us that a lot of the survivors have been coming to the firehouse and saying they were on 'X' floor [of the World Trade Center] and if it wasn't for the firefighters they wouldn't have gotten out safely," she said. "Now those people are able to come forward, it does give me a small little bit of closure."

Yet in other ways Mrs. Feinberg hasn't quite realized what happened on September 11. "This is not uncommon for them to be away for so many days," Mrs. Feinberg said. "You think that they're just going to walk through the door. They always came home, it was just a matter of when."