Losing son in 9/11 inspired Bucks County mother to lead her community with compassion

Judi Reiss holds a picture of her son, Josh, on his graduation day.
Judi Reiss holds a picture of her son, Josh, on his graduation day. He died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Photo credit Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio
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Picking Up the Pieces: After 9/11 loss, a mother turns to family, service to cope
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Major national disasters often trigger post-traumatic stress disorder for Judi Reiss. The horrific and deadly Miami condo collapse in June 2021 felt very close to home; that surreal feeling of knowing a loved one is lost in the rubble, not sure if they are dead or alive.

“I knew what these families are going through,” she said.

But the past 20 years for Judi and her family have been significantly more unique. “This was different than a flood. This was different than an accident. This was a deliberate attack.”

Judi raised all five of her children in the Yardley house she still lives in today. Dozens of family photos line the halls, showcasing her four sons and daughter, who now have children of their own.

Joshua is the second oldest. At just 23 years old, he was already becoming prolific in the finance industry. In 2001, he had just started working at Cantor Fitzgerald as one of the company’s youngest international bonds traders. He was cherry-picked by a former boss to accompany him to Cantor, and people often sought his guidance on trades.

“He was just born to do this,” Judi added.

Joshua Reiss
Josh Reiss Photo credit Judi Reiss/Facebook

Cantor occupied the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center. From Josh’s vantage point, he sat above the Statue of Liberty. “He used to tell me he could look down to the top of her head,” Judi chuckled.

Still, like a typical Jewish mother, she worried.

“I was never happy with him there,” she said. “He promised me he was 16 steps from the fire escape.”

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Judi received an abrupt call from Brooke, who was dating Josh’s old college roommate. “Who’s calling me at 8 in the morning?” Judi thought to herself. Brooke told her a plane hit the tower, and they can’t get ahold of Josh.

“I just hung up the phone,” she recalled. She called her husband, who assured her it was likely an accident, like the plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945.

When the second plane hit, she realized this was no accident.

“I can’t get Josh on the phone. I’m calling his cell. I’m calling his office number,” she recalled.

It was not like him to not answer. “He would have forced someone to give them his phone. He would have done anything. He would have let us know.”

In her head, Judi knew he was gone, but her heart couldn’t accept it.

“The first night or two, I stood at the door hoping that he would just come down the street. I was a basket case. I couldn't catch my breath. When my parents got here, I kept saying, ‘We can’t find him. We can’t find him.’ ”

Josh was one of 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died — representing almost a quarter of all 9/11 victims.

“Some days I know it’s 20 years, and other days it’s yesterday.”

Judi was lost in the wake of his death for years until she started working on the Garden of Reflection in Bucks County, a 9/11 memorial created by members of the community who also lost loved ones. She found strength in getting involved in her community.

That strength trickled into local government. She joined the Lower Makefield Township Environmental Advisory Council. She was elected Lower Makefield supervisor, then Bucks County prothonotary — one of the first Democrats to win a county row office in 30 years.

“I had not even run for third-grade secretary,” she joked. “I was the most politically naive human being you ever met. But I had a theory that I could work with anybody, and I really felt that everyone that became a supervisor had the same goal I did, which is make this a better place to live.”

If she can do something that makes life a little bit better for someone else, she said, then she has fulfilled her mission.

“You have a choice,” she added. “You can either sit and wallow forever. You can be angry at the world forever. Or, you can do something positive.

“I want to be a role model to [my grandchildren], that if something bad happens, they can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go.”

Judi’s biggest fear was that nobody would carry on Josh’s memory. “He’s 23. He never had children. Who’s going to remember him?”

Reiss family
This portrait is one of many hanging in the Reiss' family home. Photo credit Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio

His since-expanded family certainly does. In the past 20 years, Josh’s siblings have gotten married and had children of their own, some even named after him. He’s known as Uncle Josh to the nieces and nephews he never met.

Reiss siblings at Jennifer's wedding
Brothers Adam, Jonathan and Jordan at their sister, Jennifer's, wedding in 2019. Photo credit Judi Reiss/Facebook

Simultaneously, as his memory lives on, so does the trauma. Judi remembers her son, Jonathan, called her when he got news from the medical examiner.

“They found Josh,” he told her.

“Where is he? Is he all right?” Judi replied naively.

“And there was a pause,” she recalled. “He says, ‘Mom, they found his remains.’ My husband pulled off the road. I was hysterical. He started crying.”

The first set of Josh’s remains were found in May 2002 using DNA identification. Part of his body was found under a walkway that crews had used to get to the site for rescue and recovery efforts. Judi has his Cantor Fitzgerald ID card too, which was miraculously found in the wreckage.

Josh Reiss' Cantor Fitzgerald ID card
Josh Reiss' Cantor Fitzgerald ID card was miraculously found in the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001. Photo credit Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio

Josh’s grave was exhumed three times, adding more newly discovered remains. Still, having a gravesite to visit is a luxury most families of 9/11 victims do not have.

When it’s her time, Judi will be buried above Josh. She hopes he will continue to be remembered in life, not in death.

“Remember their lives — who they were, what they loved to do,” she said. “And maybe just make a little pact that the next time your neighbor says something you don’t agree with, you don’t have to yell back at them. Or if somebody writes something on Facebook, you can just let it go. Don’t pick fights. Don’t pick wars over stupid things. Be a community.

“Don’t try to pick everything apart to try [to find] everything that’s wrong. Try to find the things that are right.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio