Jewish firefighters give back


Jews know two things — suffering and Chinese food. Both are so ingrained into the life of an emergency responder, according to Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, that no one need be surprised how many Jews answer the alarms at fire stations throughout the county.

“Right in the station, right now, we have a minyan,” Bernard said as he begins to recite the names of Jewish first responders on a recent Monday evening shift at Rockville Fire Station No. 3. This is the station made famous in the local Jewish community for its annual Chanukah parade.

Firefighters join police at the scene of a recent car accident on Rockville Pike. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Firefighters join police at the scene of a recent car accident on Rockville Pike.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

The station even boasts its own Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum. On his first night at the station, there was a major fire, with flames bursting through the roof of a house in Potomac. “He was like a kid in a candy store. He was hooked,” Lenny Chornock, Station 3’s deputy fire chief said of that night about a dozen years ago.

Tenenbaum helps lead the menorah run, as the fire fighters call their Chanukah parade. He blares the music.

While the national Jewish population hovers around 3 percent, Jews make up approximately 16 percent of the first responders in Rockville, Bernard said. “We sell the heck out of Christmas trees” each year to help raise enough money to buy new equipment for the fire company.

Chornock is more serious when explaining the large percentage of Jews in fire fighting here. Many Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School students like to work off their volunteer hours here, he said. There also are a fair number of volunteers “looking to go into medical school, and they thought this will look good on their resume.”

Plus there is the fact that Montgomery County itself has a higher percentage of Jewish residents than the rest of the country.

The Rockville Fire Department, which has been in existence since March 1921, now encompasses stations 3, 23, 33 and 31, Chornock said. Together, volunteer and career firefighters at these stations answer 15,000 calls each year.

While they are referred to as fire stations, a mere 1 percent of those calls concern working fires. More than 80 percent of the alarms they go out on are medical in nature, including injuries from car accidents and illnesses, Chornock said.

Fourteen career firefighters stand ready at the station on Hungerford Drive. The evening shift, which begins at 5 p.m. and goes all the way until 7 a.m., is largely manned by volunteers, who must commit to one shift per week plus one Saturday shift every six weeks.

At any given time, up to 20 of those volunteers actually live at the firehouse, keeping their possessions in lockers and eating in the communal kitchen. They often spend their days at either nearby Montgomery County College or University of Maryland when they are not handling work at the fire company.

“Their work is their rent,” Chornock explained.

There are 148 volunteers attached to one of the Rockville stations and quite a few more who have yet to obtain enough training to make it onto the list and be allowed to ride on the various vehicles.

Because of the vast supply of eager volunteers, the station has a failure-to-respond rate of less than .01 percent, Chornock said proudly. A radio malfunction is more likely to keep the station from responding than a lack of able, willing and ready men and women, he noted. “We have one of the biggest departments in the county.”

Chornock, who began his firefighting days 34 years ago, is a volunteer. To maintain that status, he continually attends training classes, takes written exams and manages a simulated mass-casualty incident once a year. His paid job is a physician’s assistant in emergency medicine at Shady Grove Hospital. But one night a week, he answers the numerous sirens that blare through the station on a continual basis.

All the responders riding the fire trucks have to be emergency medical technicians. “When the bells ring, we are expected to know what to do,” said Chornock, the father of five.

Many of the volunteers rushed to their respective vehicles to answer a recent alarm for a car accident on Rockville Pike. With sirens blaring, the fire trucks, ambulance and deputy chief’s vehicle sped south on Rockville Pike, with cars parting like the Red Sea all around them.

Police cars, their blue lights flashing, already were at the scene, and one of the cars was already off the road. The first responders quickly headed to the other vehicle and its driver, who appeared dazed. After speaking with her, she said she wanted to go to the hospital so off they went.

Andy Hurwitz, an EMS lieutenant, was on the ambulance for this call. He is asked “all the time” what a Jew is doing working on an ambulance. His answer is a simple one. “I enjoy giving to the community. It’s community service.”

While less dramatic, their work at the scene of the car accident could have been right out of a television show. But Bernard said the comparison between what he does and what is shown on television dramas is “0.0 percent.”

Ever notice how clear the camera shot is when actors portraying firefighters are inside a building? Viewers get to see all that goes on, a luxury real firefighters do not have. There’s no smoke permeating those television fires, Chornock stressed. In real life, firefighters can’t see much at all.

Also, no Dalmations named Spotty were seen at the station. Nor were there any fire poles to slide down. “Depending on the firehouse there aren’t many poles. They went out of favor for safety reasons,” Chornock declared.

They also don’t sit around, drinking beer and watching television between alarms. There are vehicles to wash and trainings to attend. To become an emergency medical technician takes more than 250 hours of classes, Chornock said.

“The more involved you get, the more classes you have to take,” he said.

Station 3 is home to two engine trucks, one ladder truck, one rescue squad car, two ambulances and one medic unit. They are awaiting delivery on a new  $240,000 ambulance, paid for in part by the sale of Christmas holiday trees.

First responders here are like family. They attend each other’s weddings and parties, know just how far they can tease each other without hurting anyone’s feelings and eat their meals together at least one night a week. They pitch in $5 a shift and take turns cooking the meals, Chornock explained.

But most of all, they give what little free time they have making sure the rest of us get the best immediate care possible.

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