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June 9, 2007 / Checkin’ in with...

Rabbi Potasnik

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik has stuck with Brooklyn for 35 years, leading Congregation Mt. Sinai in Brooklyn Heights.

The only child of Holocaust survivors, Potasnik not only counts his congregants as his extended family, but also has a spiritual connection to New York’s firefighters, serving for many years as the FDNY’s their Jewish chaplain.

On the eve of Wednesday night’s 35th anniversary celebration, Potasnik talked to The Brooklyn Paper about his relationship with firefighters, his secret “addiction,” the special thing he did for Borough President Markowitz and why synagogues should be more like Starbucks.

Q: Are you originally from Brooklyn, or did you move here?

A: No, I was born in Boston. Home of the 2004 champions, the Boston Red Sox, and home to the 2007 champions, the Boston Red Sox.

Q: Well, you’re not talking to a Yankees fan, so don’t worry about it. When did you come to Brooklyn?

A: I came to New York when I went to school at Yeshiva University in 1964. I graduated in 1972 and came to my first, and last, congregation, Mount Sinai.

Q: What has kept you with Mount Sinai? Thirty-five years is a long time.

A: I came to the congregation, and the rabbi who preceded me, said to me, “We do not have a rich congregation, we have a wealthy congregati­on.”

The congregation has treated me like a member of their extended family. It was love at first sight. It has transcended a professional relationship.

I often say to other rabbis, because I am the executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, “I wish you the kind of people I have in my congregati­on.”

I don’t have a contract, even though I’m a lawyer. I advise other rabbis to have contracts, but all this time, I’ve never had one. You don’t have contracts with members of your family.

Q: On a more personal note, where do you like to go in Brooklyn? Do you have a favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights?

A: I’m a Starbucks addict. Sugar free, vanilla, skim latte is the drink of choice. We ought to create synagogues that feel like Starbucks. You know, when you walk into a Starbucks, it is very warm and welcoming. You walk in there and you feel like no one is going to pressure you into doing anything.

Q: Is there anything else that really connects you with Brooklyn?

A: Marty Markowitz. I did his wedding. His wife still hasn’t forgiven me for that.

Q: I also understand that you are the Jewish chaplain to the FDNY. How has that experience been?

A: Firefighters are the most religious people, religious in the humanistic way. They are selfless souls. Of course, 9-11 was the most defining moment with regard to the greatness of that department. People appreciated the heroism before that, but not the depth.

Quick story — there was a young boy, 7 or 8 years old; he had cancer and he was part of the Make-A-Wish program. His wish was to be an honorary firefighter.

About a year ago there was that huge fire in Greenpoint, and the firefighters made sure that they came back from the fire in Greenpoint for the ceremony, because they wanted to make sure that boy received that special honor.

Q: But how many Jewish boys want to be firefighters when they grow up?

A: Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of Jewish firefighters. I know I wanted to be one when I grew up, just like every other kid.

Q: But you became a lawyer and a rabbi. That’s nice for your mother.

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Reader Feedback

carly from brooklyn heights says:
You are also a part of our extended family, Rabbi Joe, we love you!
Sept. 5, 2008, 10:06 pm
Robert Wood from New Jersey says:
Dear Rabbi:
I am a Gentile and know little of your religion, and I have a simple (maybe not) question to ask you...Why do you believe in the Old Testament but not the New Testament when they were written by the same people, namely Hebrews.
Were they not of your faith before they became Christians? Why then do you believe in some Hebrew writings but not others? Does your (ancient)history end 2008 years ago?
Thank you for a response and best regards,
Robert Wood
Long Branch, NJ
Sept. 17, 2008, 7:06 pm
Dr. Pelofsky from East Brunswick,NJ says:
Dear Rabbi Potasnik:

You mentioned Rabbilives.com on you program this morning. This is to inform that there is no such site.

Dr. Pelofsky
Sept. 28, 2008, 12:59 pm
Sonny Tannenbaum from Former Sheepshaead Bay says:
First of all, I think Rabbi Potasnik, is one of the greatest Rabbis that ever lived as well as a perfect gentleman. His quick wit, good sence of humor, and intelligance, makes him the the man he is. His views on any subject is objective and genuine. I consider him my mentor.
July 8, 2009, 11:57 pm
mel from crown heights says:
is he married
Aug. 30, 2009, 3:31 pm
Jerianne from Pennsylvania says:
Hi Robert Wood of New Jersey, Here's a question for YOU: Why do you believe in the New Testament? Why this bible and not any other bible? why "yours" and not "theirs"? Are you aware that there are literally hundreds of other bibles?
Sept. 21, 2010, 9:17 pm
neil from nj says:
He is one of the best people i have met in my life. I met him when i was working in his building as a handyman. Great person, friend and an awesome family man. Keep up the great work Joe, you are great.
Dec. 9, 2010, 5:35 pm
Dorothy Wachsstock from Fairfax, Va. says:
Been in touch with Rabbi Potasnik ever since 1984 but we have never met. Listened to his program of Religion on the line where I discovered him and Father Paul. Though I get angry at times at many things that some of our elected Jewish officials do and complain to him..he never gets angry at me. Rabbi Joe is a decent person and he does feel like family. He didn't even tell me that there was an interview on FB. Now I want him to speak to Bibi when he sees our Pres. and tell him that we Jews stand behind him and not to be intimidated. I will write to him but you can pass this on to your readers. If Pres.Obama threatens him, our P.M. of Israel should come out and hold a Press conference so that we Jews know about it. It makes a big difference in our lives with all of the anti-semitism we have to combat everywhere. We did say, "NEVER AGAIN".
May 17, 2011, 3:29 pm
Marcia Rand from Massachusetts says:
I enjoyed watching you tonight on the Glenn Beck Show. I am a Roman Catholic sir. I stand behind Israel this is the land where Jesus Christ traveled.I have great respect for the Jewish people. God Bless You and Keep Israel chosen people safe. You will be in my prayers.
May 20, 2011, 6:36 pm
Charlotte Bays from Linn Valley, Kansas says:
I watched you on Glenn Beck today. I am a Christian and stand behind Israel 100%. God Bless You!!!!!!!
May 20, 2011, 7:18 pm
Canisius from Yonkers says:
You are loudmouthed idiot Rabbi who likes to pontificate from behind your microphone, you cut off anyone you disagree with, you don't believe in objective Truth and are anti-Catholic.
June 19, 2011, 1:56 pm
fifi from flatbush says:
I think the rabbi and deacon don't think we notice that other religions are not represented on their show ie. islam, other christian not catholic, etc. Also a deacon is the best you could get? His school is not a parochial school. He doesn't represent Roman Catholics. Every week we hear from the Fire Commissioner, I think we get the point already (Firefighters are good people, heroes and not praised enough) What about soldiers who actually risk their lives for almost no salary and do not enjoy highly paid jobs with minimal risk (today's buildings don't catch on fire) No question about it the 911 firefighters were true heroes.
July 21, 2011, 12:58 pm
Hiram from Sheepshead Bay says:
I hAD a problem and needed the Rabbi's advice on who to turn to. I wrote him an email that was never answered. I called his show and was put on hold for the whole 2 and a half hours. I believe the Rabbi is a politician and a lawyer and sincere in his defense of Israel but he is not a good Jew who cares about other Jews. The Rabbi's consistent comments are to blame others for letting bad things happen and he does not offer help or take personal responsibility. Still he is better than the Deacon who snuck in a comment recently about an antisemite who was being pressured to be removed from a college I think it was. The deacon said he shouldn't have his career ruined and maybe should have another chance. He said it fast and snuck it in, the Rabbi didn't contradict him.
July 21, 2011, 1:06 pm
Susan from Manhattan says:
I can't understand why Joe would say he was born in Boston. Joe was born in Germany and his parents came to America shortly thereafter. He grew up in Lynn - - not Boston.
Jan. 15, 2012, 5:20 pm
June Ottaviano from Sussex County NJ says:
Rabbi, I think the Christian and Jews should come together to override the new comments that we are being diminished in the US because of the population saying they have no religion. The young are being so misled and we are losing our Country. We are, after all, a Judeo Christian nation and we cannot release our country to those who would destroy all of us. Please help.
May 21, 6:47 pm

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