A Fire in the Belly

Illustration of a man wearing a yarmulke being greeted by two firefighters
Giselle Potter

When I was a kid, my life’s plan was to serve others as a rabbi, like my older brother did. The rabbi at our synagogue rarely interacted with the Hebrew school students or the youth groups. Parents dropped off their kids and drove away. I hoped to be the kind of rabbi who drew families to temple because they wanted to be there, not because they had to be.

Of course, like most kids, I also had a less practical obsession. From the age of 6 or 7, I was mesmerized by the flashing lights and sirens of fire equipment. As I got older, I visited every firehouse I could walk, bike or — eventually — drive to, all around Greater Boston.

But, even when I was a youngster, I knew that becoming a firefighter wasn’t a sensible career plan. After high school, I enrolled in Brandeis and kept my eye on entering the rabbinate.

The first setback occurred when I was rejected by the Conservative seminary after graduating from Brandeis. I applied to the Reform seminary, and was accepted by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. But it was a bit too Reform for me (its picnic for new students featured cheeseburgers). Eventually, I dropped out and returned to something I knew I did well — teaching in religious school.

I was hired by a wonderful Conservative synagogue in Greensboro, North Carolina. Several days after my wife and I moved into our new apartment, I drove past a firehouse, catching a glimpse of shiny red trucks through the open bay doors. I pulled into a parking lot and got out of my car to look around. It was as if I were 6 again.

“Hi, there,” a friendly voice called out. “I’m Captain Hall. Can I help you?”

Wearing a white shirt and a gold badge, the captain walked over and shook my hand. I gushed — like an open fire hydrant, I’m sure — about my admiration for everything firefighter.

Captain Hall introduced me to his boss, Chief Wilson, a down-home Southern boy who had a big smile. “Captain Hall told me you like what you see here,” he said with a thick drawl. “Would you like to join up?”

Flabbergasted, I had difficulty speaking. I had never seriously thought about becoming a firefighter. “Thank you, sir, but I have a full-time job at the synagogue as the education director,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he replied. “But we’re a combination department. We’re always looking for volunteers, too. We’d love to have an educated young man like you.” He leaned in and touched my beard. “However, if you’re gonna join, you gotta take two steps closer to your razor.”

I was sold. As it happened, an 18-year-old Jewish student, who became (and still is) my best friend, signed up around the time I did. We were the first Jews to join this fire department. Some of the firefighters had never even met a Jew before. Although I told my dad and brothers about my volunteer job, we kept it from my mom, who would have complained that firefighting was not something a good Jewish boy does.

During my first year, I was on the nozzle of a fire hose at a couple of structure fires. The most traumatic call came when a pickup truck overturned and spilled fuel, which ignited, trapping the driver inside. My friend and I arrived on the engine with only 500 gallons of water to try to knock down the fire in time to attempt a rescue. Though we managed to get the driver out, he died a few days later. Even now, every time we get together, my friend and I talk about that day.

I served four years with the Greensboro fire department and another four with one outside Syracuse, New York, until a severe knee injury knocked me out of active service in 1985.

Today, my wife and I privately tutor students and adults in all aspects of Jewish life and officiate at various Jewish life-cycle events. But I’ve remained dedicated to firefighters. I produce and host a podcast, “Five-Alarm Task Force,” for and about members of the fire service. I’m involved in script production for an hour-long dramatic series about a fire and rescue squad.

And I still carry a rescue bag in my car. I’ve stopped to help people in distress countless times.

I had to extinguish my dream of becoming a rabbi. But firefighting made my life burn even brighter.

Listen to Steven Greene’s “Five-Alarm Task Force” podcast at bit.ly/DalmatWeb.