‘Too Jewish’ For Fire Department?
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‘Too Jewish’ For Fire Department?

A chasidic rabbi working for the Fire Department claims he has been prevented from performing chaplain duties, barred from ceremonies and denied a uniform while being told by a top official that he was "too Jewish."

"They just don’t want me to do anything," said Rabbi Mayer Birnhack, who began working as a chaplain with the city’s Emergency Medical Service in 1988.

When EMS, formerly run by the Health and Hospitals Commission, merged with the Fire Department in 1996, the rabbi says he was put on a "hit list" and barred from responding to emergencies while being placed in a closet-sized office and denied a department vehicle and identification card.

In the most serious allegation, Rabbi Birnhack says his time sheets were altered to show him on sick leave when he was working.

"Everyone who came over from EMS is on a hit list," said the rabbi.

But the Fire Department, which has another Jewish chaplain, says ceremonies and emergency duties are not part of the rabbi’s job description and that he is assigned to counseling services.

"Although he had the civil service title of chaplain with the Health and Hospitals Corp., he was never given Fire Department chaplain duties to perform," said Chief Brian Dixon, a department spokesman. "He is assigned to our counseling unit and performs counseling-related functions. He hasn’t been asked or needed to perform any [chaplain] function, and hasn’t officiated [at ceremonies]."

Rabbi Birnhack declined to name the official who told him he was "too Jewish," except to say that it was an assistant to the fire commissioner. A chaplain’s association to which Rabbi Birnhack belongs believes the department is trying to keep him from public visibility because of his chasidic appearance.

"These are tactics that people use to try to get someone to quit without starting a confrontation," said Pesach Lattin of the New York State Police Chaplains’ Association.

Chief Dixon said there was no record of any complaint filed by Rabbi Birnhack, and that the manipulation of time sheets in particular would be definite cause for investigation had there been a complaint.

Rabbi Birnhack said he was taking no legal action because he did not want to see any harm come to the department. In fact, the rabbi did not go public with his allegations until Lattin alerted The Jewish Week to his complaints. Rabbi Birnhack also serves as a chaplain for the state Park Police, the city Sheriff’s Office and the MTA’s Bridge and Tunnel Officers’ Association.

The Fire Department’s official Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, said he was barely acquainted with Rabbi Birnhack, 35, who lives in Borough Park.
"I know him only in passing," said Rabbi Potasnik, who was appointed three years ago. "I don’t know if he has an official role."

Rabbi Potasnik leads the Conservative Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights.

When Rabbi Potasnik’s comments were related to Rabbi Birnhack, he expressed astonishment. Rabbi Birnhack said he had spoken to Rabbi Potasnik frequently about his status at the department. A source at the New York Board of Rabbis, of which Rabbi Potasnik is president and Rabbi Birnhack is a member, said there was "bad blood" between the two.

Rabbi Birnhack said that shortly after the EMS-Fire Department merger, the FDNY’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Milton Rosenfeld, retired. Rabbi Birnhack said rather than hire another rabbi, he urged the department to hire an imam for the first time in the departmentís history and to give Rabbi Birnhack the top Jewish job.

Instead, the politically connected Rabbi Potasnik was hired, and an imam was not hired until 2001.

For more than a decade Rabbi Birnhack has been a fixture at accident scenes and emergency rooms, especially at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park. He also is known to aid families of victims on his own time. And although Rabbi Birnhack supports seven children on a salary of about $40,000, he reportedly has offered money to disadvantaged emergency workers in dire straits.

Marianne Pizzitola, an emergency medical technician working in Brooklyn, said Rabbi Birnhack offered to help her financially during a divorce.
"He reached out to me and tried to help me spiritually, financially, any way he could," said Pizzitola, a Catholic. "More and more people I talk to over the years say the same things about him."

Lattin said that after meeting Rabbi Birnhack in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he pushed the rabbi to go public with his complaints.
"He wanted to keep it quiet, didn’t want to make any waves," said Lattin, a chaplain’s assistant with the city’s hospital police. "He only recently decided to take any action."

Lattin said his group was formed by chaplains across the state who worked at Ground Zero and wanted a way to keep in touch and work on common issues. He said when he and others have tried to reach Rabbi Birnhack at the FDNY Counseling Service, they were told he was fired.

Rabbi Birnhack said others trying to reach him have also been diverted.

"Why are they trying to hurt me when I am trying to help people, but when people call me they say he doesn’t work for us, call Rabbi Potasnik?" he asked.
A source in Attorney General Eliot Spitzerís office said the civil rights unit, which has aggressively investigated religious discrimination complaints, was looking into at least one complaint by a Jewish employee of the Fire Department. David Kaplan, an Emergency Medical Technician trainee, was fired because he missed a Friday night training program.

The source said he had not heard about Rabbi Birnhack’s case.

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