FDNY Chaplain Rabbi Joseph Potasnik recently deployed to Rockaway, a town in Long Island devastated by Hurricane Sandy. There, he met a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor who was staying at a shelter.
Potasnik asked the wheelchair-bound man how he was doing. "I'm fine — others have it worse," the old man said, noting that it was the second time in his life that he had been displaced.
Like the old man, many firefighters in Rockaway lost their homes, but they still were out helping the community. "You're hurting and helping at the same time — it's an amazing phenomenon and that to me is a Thanksgiving kind of message," Potasnik said.
Potasnik serves as executive vice president for the Board of Rabbis and is rabbi at Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights. He also is one of five chaplains for the FDNY, a position he's served in since 1999. "Denomination is second; service is first," Potasnik said. "When someone needs help or if there is a crisis in FDNY, we all respond to help. We're different faiths, but one family and we all work together."
Unless a special religious service is required, the chaplains do not differentiate in their response. "The word 'religion' means 'to bind together,' and I think we fulfill our religious mandate," he said. "There are separate paths to our houses of worship, but we are family with FDNY."
Potasnik and I spoke about this Thanksgiving, with so many people displaced. He said he was reminded of a story he read years ago about leftover turkey.
"In life, as in the kitchen, it's not what you do the day of Thanksgiving with the turkey; it's what you do the day afterward with the leftovers," he recalled. "That's the challenge of life. One minute you're looking at a bird, stuffed and overflowing, and the next moment you're looking at all the scraps. One minute you're enjoying good health, and the next you're in the doctor's office.
"What do you do with the next moment when you're broken and face leftover pieces of life?"
Potasnik reminded me that it's easy to be thankful when everything is going your way, but not many people can say that. But the true gift is recognizing what you have to be thankful for even in the most difficult of times.
The FIRE CHIEF staff wishes you and your family, a very Happy Thanksgiving.