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.