Living through 9/11 set one family on a new course
Sabrina and Mike Jaffe stand inside their office on Railroad Street in Great Barrington. They moved to the Berkshires after the September 11 attacks 15 years ago.
Photo by Megan Haley
The belief that “all challenges become gifts” has defined Sabrina and Mike Jaffe’s path in life, and this time of year finds the Great Barrington couple full of reflection. The Berkshires, a haven for so many in the wake of the September 11 attacks, became an unexpected community for the Jaffes when Mike’s life took an inspiring turn on a seemingly ordinary September day.
Mike had reached a crossroads: He was virtually absent from his young daughter’s waking world, commuting two hours each way from Westport, Connecticut, to downtown Manhattan, and he was succeeding in a job that was unfulfilling. A simple decision—to take a later train to work so he could have a leisurely breakfast with his wife and daughter—was the start of his living powerfully. Jaffe’s departure from routine meant he was on the subway, not at his desk, when the first plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing his 300 colleagues at Marsh & McLennan.
This year, as the world remembers the 15th anniversary of the attacks on New York City, the Jaffes are focused on giving back. In a nod to the community here, Mike will share the powerful story of his “human wakeup call” as chronicled in his book, Wake Up! Your Life Is Calling, at a free event at Berkshire South Regional Community Center on September 10, 2016.
“To be authentic is to be messy,” Mike Jaffe points out. “I had to own my path, rather than just be a victim.” He says this allowed him to be open to the uncertainty of possibility.
“There was a pull about this area that just grabbed us,” recollects Sabrina who, with her husband, began traveling from Manhattan to Stockbridge each October to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The Jaffes immediately connected to the beauty and nature they found here and recall hiking Monument Mountain just weeks after 9/11. Looking down from the rocky outcropping, they took photographs that captured the first flag painted on the hill at Monument Mountain Regional High School. “It was still very raw,” she recalls. Mike recalls having “no idea as to the beauty that was waiting” for them when they moved to Great Barrington full-time with their children, then ten and 7, in the summer of 2010.
“We sold the move to our kids as a life adventure,” recalls Sabrina. The family spent ten months living with Mike’s parents, where they had to hang sheets in the basement to create personal space, before realizing they could take what was being presented as a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. It was the belief that as long as the four of them were together, they could weather any storm.
The Jaffes remember feeling an incredible sense of warmth upon arriving in Great Barrington. The welcome of neighbors and families who became their anchors was something Mike had never experienced anywhere else. Today the couple’s children, Olivia, 16, and Sam, 13, are thriving student-athletes at Monument Mountain Regional High School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School, respectively. Mike coaches his son’s youth sports; Sabrina has found her niche in Walking Our Talk, a women’s circle of inclusion that works to break down old paradigms based on isolation in an effort to bring back a tribe mentality, central to any community.
Mike points to September 11th as a pivot point—he and his family honor the yearly anniversary as “a moment of gratitude rather than dwelling in sadness and loss.” His sense of responsibility, to look forward and ask “What now?” has been integral to his healing. He and his wife co-founded the Mike Jaffe Company to empower others to live powerfully and authentically. Today, their office on Railroad Street is a home base that supports their work in transformational coaching, motivational speaking, and innovative team building. Mike is on the road quite a bit, making weekly trips to New York City. He is no stranger to the plaza outside Marsh & McLennan headquarters at 46th and Sixth, where a memorial humanizes his lost colleagues with their names as well as replications of their signatures.
“What’s cathartic for me,” says Mike, “is every time I give a talk, there is a tremendous amount of love created in the room that people give back to me.” He worried about people being angry with him for surviving when their loved one didn’t. What he found, instead, was grace. “I need to make it count. That’s what helps me heal.”
“Our journey has changed us, strengthened us,” says Sabrina. “It’s given us resilience and perspective.” It is through this lens, and the Jaffes’ lessons of gratitude, that the many gifts borne of unspeakable tragedy might continue to be honored.