Since September 11, we've been reminded of the heroics of firefighters. This fall, as we've witnessed the devastation of the California wildfires, we have been reminded yet again of the firefighters' brave deeds.
If we are searching for a way to repair the world and live our day-to-day life with meaning, then what better way than to join the local firehouse. Isaac Bashevis Singer said when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature, "God speaks in deeds and his vocabulary is the universe." We too want to speak with our actions, but why in the universe would anyone run into a house on fire when everyone else was running out? As a Jewish firefighter in San Diego, the site of the some of the worst wildfires in California, Dana Ben Kaplan says, "That's your normal instinct: to run in and help." The firefighter from a small town in New Jersey and Miami, Florida has been a firefighter in the region about 18 years.
"It looked like the entire horizon was on fire. It was the biggest fire I'd ever seen."
Kaplan fought the Cedar Fire where searing flames threatened homes in Lakeside, Santee, and San Diego. "It looked like the entire horizon was on fire. Turning my head from right to left, I could see fires everywhere. It was the biggest fire I'd ever seen." Kaplan worked about 39 hours straight racing from one blaze to the next. "I was jumping out, grabbing hose. I was following an engine in a reserve ambulance, parking, jumping off, pulling line, fighting the fire. Then we'd throw the hose on the engine and take off again… It was very windy, but we protected every house we could."
However noble their actions and meaningful the life, is firefighting really a Jewish occupation? Ner Tamid, an organization of Jewish firefighters founded in 1925, saw peak membership during the Depression, but now its retired members outnumber its new ones. Granted, they're not as common as lawyers and accountants, especially in the west, but Jewish firefighters are thriving.
As a career choice, it's competitive to become a firefighter. Kaplan relates, "In the 1980s, when thousands applied to be on an eligibility list for a position in Los Angeles, they would hire about 100-300. It took about two to three years to pass all the tests and get hired. Today it helps to be a paramedic to get hired." He was attracted to firefighting for the same reasons many intelligent young people would be. The profession combined physical skills, dexterity, strength, coordination, camaraderie, thinking under pressure, and helping people. Kaplan adds, "About 80 percent of the calls today are medical aid calls. In southern California, paramedics are typically attached to fire departments." So for motivated Jewish high school students who are not applying to med school, perhaps this is the vocation your guidance counselor forgot to tell you about.
Most of the time, you won't even be extinguishing fires or helping on medical emergencies. You will be working with fellow firefighters, shopping for groceries, and cooking together at the station. Kaplan says, "Inside the fire station is another world. We're not just working there -- we're living there. In a regular office, you can be professional, but you're only working 9-5. At the firehouse, you have three or four guys showering in a four-stall shower, you're watching TV at midnight, working together 24 hour shifts, sometimes working together for 30 years."
Kaplan says the anti-Semitic jibes forced him to read books and educate himself about Judaism.
Like everywhere else, anti-Semitism lurks among firefighters. Guys including captains and chiefs have said things like "Jew 'em down." Other negative comments fly. Kaplan says these jibes and insults forced him to read books and educate himself about Judaism. On his first vacation after being hired as a fireman in San Diego, he chose to go to Israel. Over the years, he attended synagogue, read Jewish newspapers, dated Jewish women, and has returned to Israel repeatedly. Now, guys at Kaplan's firehouse respect that he doesn't eat pork.
Although Kaplan believes that as Jews we should try to make the world a better place, he doesn't think his calling to help others is any different than that of his non-Jewish fellow firefighters. "When I'm working on a scene, it doesn't matter whether it's with a Jewish victim or white supremacist. I treat everybody exactly the same." Treating everyone as equals, saving people and homes from fire, trying to make the world a better place. Sounds pretty Jewish to me.