By Marcia Montgomery Jewish Chronicle
Ari Schonbrun was one of only four people out of the 662 employees of his workplace to survive 9/11. Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street firm, occupied the top five floors of Tower One. Schonbrun was on the 78th floor when the first plane hit.
He will tell his story as the featured speaker at the KC Kollel’s annual honoree dinner at the Overland Park Convention Center on Tuesday, Aug. 20. While still employed with Cantor Fitzgerald (in October it will be 20 years), Schonbrun speaks to groups around the country and has written a book about that day called Miracles and Fate on 78.
Schonbrun said he does not suffer from survivor’s guilt; he believes God was watching over him and there are reasons he survived while others did not.
“I am very, very happy that I survived,” he said. “I still to this day wonder why it was me, but I think I’ve come to the reality that it was for several reasons. One, just after two years later we had another child, after the doctor told my wife she would not be able to have any more children. So I firmly believe that that soul needed to come down, and that’s why I survived.
“I also believe I survived because I am not afraid to stand up in front of an audience and tell my story. … You don’t have a lot of people who can stand up and address an audience. I think that was a gift God had given me and it was almost like [God was saying] ‘I’m plucking you out of a burning building, I’m giving you a second chance and I want to know what you’re going to do with it.’ And I did.”
September 11 changed Schonbrun’s entire way of life. In addition to his speaking engagements, he puts his family first, volunteers and gives back to the community. Prior to 9/11, his job was No. 1.
“I try to tell people that people in general need to change because we are so wrapped up in our own selves and we’re very egocentric, we don’t really care about the rest of the world to a degree because we’re all busy with our own lives and a lot of times we don’t take God into our personal lives. He’s there and He’s waiting for us to take Him into our lives,” the 56-year-old Orthodox Jew said.
“That is absolutely the message I want people to understand. We live in some dangerous times. The world is not a safe place, and what are we doing about it? The conflicts that are going on in the world today have been going on for thousands of years and I don’t see an end to it. It’s going to continue unless we do something different.
“God is the only one who can put the whole thing back together again, who can make everything right,” he continued. “But we need to approach Him and say, ‘Hey God guess what, we’re looking at You now. We know we can’t do this, we need Your help.’ And that’s across all religions. I don’t preach to a specific religion, I talk to all religions. I don’t care if you’re a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, it doesn’t matter. We all believe in God and if you don’t, you need to.”
Schonbrun said he did not undergo any psychological counseling following 9/11, even though people kept telling him he should. He believes part of the reason is that it was only a couple of months after 9/11 that he began talking publicly about it when he was invited to speak at a Yeshiva’s annual Malava Malka. It was cathartic.
“That was the first time I spoke about my story to an audience and after that, through word of mouth, people kept calling me and asking me to come and speak,” he said. “I think that helped me a tremendous amount because it really ultimately ingrained in me the actual, the real miracles of the day that happened to me.
“You don’t really understand it initially, and I certainly didn’t understand it. As I started telling the story, I thought, you know what, that really was a miracle, a series of miracles,” he went on to explain. “And I think that really, really helped me to cope with it. Obviously we don’t understand why it happened, and we’ll never understand, … but it did and we have to cope with it. And that’s where I’m at. I cope with it.”
Sometimes when Schonbrun is talking in front of an audience, there are moments when it becomes very difficult for him; it all comes flashing back. But it has been 11 years and with time things get better, he said.
The hardest day for him is the anniversary of 9/11 because on that day Cantor Fitzgerald has a charity day where all commissions generated go to charity and raises about $12 million.
“For me it is a very, very difficult day. For most of the people here who weren’t around on 9/11, it’s an upbeat day. We get celebrities who come and it’s like a big party. But for me, I generally don’t come to work that day because it’s not a party,” he explained. “It’s a wonderful thing they do and I’m glad they do it because we do raise a lot of money for the Cantor Relief Fund and for up to 50 different charities. If they would hold it on another day, it would be great, but I understand why they do it on that day and I usually tend to be by myself.”
Schonbrun lives in Cedarhurst, Long Island, with his wife Joyce and their five children, ranging in age from 27 to 9. He also has a grandson who is 13 months old, with another one on the way around Rosh Hashanah.
“I want people to know I’m really excited about coming out to Kansas City; I’m excited to be addressing the audience,” he said. “I think from just the little I know about the community Kollel, it is such an important institution and I’m so glad that I have the opportunity to help them.”