NEW YORK, NY – “I will remember Father Mychal Judge’s words until the day I die. He told those brave fire fighters to ‘hold on to your memories, hold on to the day and hold on to one another,’’’ Rabbi Joseph Potasnik recounted to me in a recent interview.
The brave fire fighters to whom Potasnik- the Rabbi Emeritus at Mt. Sinai Synagogue in Brooklyn Heights, the vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR), a local talk radio co-host and commentator covering Jewish and ecumenical related issues on WABC and WINS, and a New York City Fire Department chaplain- referred were those present at a re-dedication ceremony held in their Bronx firehouse. Father Judge, who was a Franciscan Friar and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, had joined Rabbi Potasnik, then entering his 2nd year as a Fire Department Chaplain, to speak at the ceremony.
The date of that ceremony was September 10, 2001. The following day, Father Judge became one of the 2,977 innocents murdered in the attack against humanity which would forever simply and tragically be known as 9/11. As Rabbi Potasnik and I discussed, those of us who will never forget 9/11 will always be inspired by the courage of such heroes as Father Judge. And with good reason.
Within an hour after the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of The World Trade Center at 8:46 am that horrible morning, instantly killing hundreds of people, the good Father arrived at that deadly site. Minutes later, he accompanied firefighters, police officers and other first responders as they embarked on a perilous, lifesaving, race against time mission into that disintegrating building.
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At 9:03, as that grave mission was in process, the second hijacked plane hit the South Tower of The World Trade Center, resulting in the instant deaths of more than 800 civilians and first responders, and causing the building to collapse 59 minutes later. The force of that collapse also propelled tons of deadly heavy wreckage from the South Tower to the North, killing hundreds of more people. One of those people was Father Judge.
At 10: 28, shortly after the death of Father Judge, the North Tower of the WTC also collapsed, and hundreds of more innocents lost their lives.
Just 32 minutes after that deadly collapse, Rabbi Potasnik arrived at the smoke-soaked streets of Wall Street, now and probably forever known as Ground Zero. Describing the destruction he witnessed, the Rabbi stated,
“Wherever I turned I saw scenes of devastation: first responders searching for missing colleagues; personal belongings strewn in the mist of the debris; and I smelled the odor of rubble pervading in the air.”
When he later learned of the death of Father Judge, Rabbi Potasnik said he was distressed but not surprised. “I was terribly saddened, but given what I knew to be the depth of his dedication to the fire department, I was not surprised that he would be willing to put his life at risk to save his fellow human beings,” he stated.
Beginning from the first days after 9/11 until today, Potasnik, 73, the married father of an adult son, has continued to serve as a counselor to many of the surviving family members of firefighters and other first responders who died that day.
“From first days after the attack and the many years following, I have tried to help ease the pain of the family and loved ones of these great heroes who sacrificed their lives trying to save innocent human beings,” he told me. “Even today, more than 18 years after those heinous attacks, there are people who continue to grieve over the loss they suffered, and some still come to see me. While it is painful to acknowledge, the suffering caused by crimes of the evil often does not end even after their demise.”
As the Rabbi spoke the final words in that last sentence, the thought came to my mind that he no doubt possessed a very personal understanding of the nature of evil, that long preceded 9/11.
While unknown to many of the millions of his inter-faith radio shows followers and fans his mother, Anne, and father, Herman, were both Holocaust survivors. Both had been married to other spouses and had raised their own young families. That suddenly changed in 1941, when Hitler and his Nazi Party followers began their evil plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe. By the time Nazi Germany was defeated in April 1945, 6 million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered. Among them was almost every relative of Anne and Herman, including the five precious children they had brought into the world between them.
To my surprise, however, I learned from the Rabbi that while he was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Lynn, Massachusetts his parents who met after the war, very rarely spoke to him about the loss of their families.
“My parents did not want to burden me with their own grief. So they raised me in as normal a way as they possibly could, trying their best to keep their own sorrow to themselves,” he reflected.
Potasnik, though, was able to infer a good deal about his parents’ sorrow- not from their words, but rather from unmarked pictures hanging on the walls and standing on the shelves of his childhood home.
“Whenever I would ask my parents to tell me who the girls, boys, men and women in the pictures were, they would only answer ‘family.’ In my mind as a child, I considered these pictures to be the photographs of the non-living,” he recalled.
From the ashes of the “non-living” of the European Holocaust, his parents, and later Joseph, found a world free of fear in America, and they also found very kind people of their own and also a different faith, there to help them. As Rabbi Potasnik explained to me,
“When as Holocaust survivors, my parents first settled in Lynn [Mass.] soon after the war, my parents were welcomed and provided assistance by members of the local Jewish Community Center. They were also welcomed by the sisters of the local St. Mary’s Church. Together, these Jewish brethren and caring nuns helped my parents adjust to America…. For many years after, these wonderful nuns joined our family at our Passover Seder, which reflected the interfaith spirit I grew up with in my house.”
Since receiving his rabbinical ordination from the Theological Seminary of Yeshivah University in 1972, the life and work of Rabbi Potasnik has seemed to embody the “interfaith spirit” he learned from his parents. In addition to his both religious and secular oriented work and his weekly interfaith predicated radio shows, the Rabbi has helped raise funds for numerous both Jewish and non-Jewish charities. Discussing his work with these charities, Potasnik stated,
“We live in a world of interdependence where we have different beliefs but also belong to one another.”
True to that philosophy, Rabbi Potasnik has met and later established close personal and professional relationships with a very diverse and very long list of elected officials and religious and spiritual leaders, including the late Cardinal John O’Conner, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Reverend AB Bernard, Muslim cleric and reformer Sheikh Musa Drammeh, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mayor de-Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Potasnik, who recently published his first book, “Just Give Me a Minute,’’ which is based upon the one-minute mini-sermons he delivers on his weekly WINS radio show, told me that many of the sermons he records in the book have been inspired by some of the work and words of the leaders he had just referred to. The Rabbi cited as one example the words he had heard spoken by Cardinal O’Conner in a sermon many years ago.
“I recall sitting at St. Patrick’s and hearing Cardinal O’Connor talking about the miracle of Chanukah,” he remembered. “The Cardinal had made Jewish- Catholic relations a priority. The Cardinal’s words that day and his exemplary life became the inspiration behind many of my sermons.”
Still, Potasnik told me the memory of his parents, who died more than 20 years ago, continues to remain the greatest inspiration of all for him.
“My parents are buried in New Jersey. On their tombstone the words are written, ‘They lost much, and they loved much.’ To start a new life after all they had lost, took a special kind of inner strength,” he stated. “You can probably understand why my memories of my mother and father continue to guide me and inspire me to this day.”
I chose not to mention it to him, but I assumed his memories of his mother and father remain on his mind as he has now become among one of New York City’s most active and vocal religious leaders in the attempt to put an end to the recent rash of violent anti-Semitic crimes committed in the tri-state area. These horrible crimes have included the murder of two Hasidic Jews killed by a gunman in a kosher grocery store in New Jersey this past November; an attack committed by a thug using a machete that wounded 5 Hassidic Jews attending a Hanukah party in Monsey, NY 3 weeks ago; and seven random physical assaults over the past several weeks alone perpetrated on the streets of Brooklyn, NY against Jewish men, women and children.
“These horrific acts of hatred show that Jews remain vulnerable targets wherever they live, shop, work and pray. For me, this brings back terrible thoughts about the horrors my parents witnessed and lived through in Europe,” Rabbi Potasnik lamented.
Both to protest and to bring public attention to this epidemic of anti-Semitism, Potasnik’s NYBR in conjunction with the UJA-Federation of NY, and several other major Jewish organizations, co- sponsored a rally held in Brooklyn’s Cadman Square on January 5, 2020, under the banner, “No Hate. No Fear.”
Noting that the rally was attended by an estimated 25,000 mainly Jews, but also a significant number of Christians, including Cardinal Dolan, Pastor A.R. Bernard, Mayor Bill de-Blasio and Governor Cuomo, all of whom spoke at the event to condemn anti-Semitism and show their solidarity with the Jewish community, Potasnik, stated,
“Even in the face of this recent scourge of anti-Semitism, the support that the Jewish community has received from leaders and lay people of other faiths continues to make me believe in the goodness of humanity.”
That belief, I think, would, if they were still alive, be shared by the Rabbi’s mother and father and by his good friend Father Judge.