When the news broke on Oct. 7 that Hamas had attacked Israel, members of the Ner Tamid Society, a fraternal organization for Jewish employees of the New York Fire Department, immediately reached out to someone else to process the news.
“Our little private group chats started going off almost nonstop,” said Deputy Chief Yonatan Klein, the society’s president.
The leadership board of Ner Tamid (which translates to “eternal light” or “eternal flame”) met repeatedly over the week after the attack to discuss how best to serve the group and the wider Jewish community. So far, that has meant connecting members with organizations collecting money and supplies to send to Israel, said Chief Klein, 37, who is a paramedic in Manhattan and lives on Long Island. He added that many members had expressed a desire to go overseas to help. The group’s leaders are also coaching members to navigate difficult conversations about the war.
“History has taught us that there are things people are going to say about Israel, and it’s our responsibility to be an ambassador,” he said.
Ner Tamid includes about 200 Jewish firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers, inspectors and other Fire Department employees, both active and retired. Founded in 1926 as a brotherhood for a minority group in a dangerous line of work, it saw a decline in membership from the 1980s through the 2010s. But it is now growing in size and visibility, thanks to efforts in recent years to engage younger recruits, raise money and become more active.
Members support one another’s career advancement, celebrate holidays together, represent the department at public events like the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, and offer advice and comradeship when needed — like now.
“Community is everything in the Fire Department,” said fire commissioner Laura Kavanagh. “You go to a tough job, and you need to come back and sit around the table and talk about how you feel about it.”
The commissioner noted New York’s sizable Jewish population, and said that Ner Tamid’s members “help us have outreach to those communities.”
The Fire Department has nearly two dozen ethnic, religious and cultural organizations serving its more than 17,000 employees. There are societies for Muslims, Catholics, military veterans, LGBTQ members, and those of African, Caribbean, Greek, Irish and Italian descent, among others. (Though some are known as fraternal organizations, they include women; the Ner Tamid Society has 10 female members. There are also women-focused groups.)
“It’s good to know that you have people you work with who are there for you,” said Jeremy Griffel, 36, a captain in the Lower Manhattan EMS division who lives in Rockland County and joined the society a year and a half ago. “They know what you are going through.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a Fire Department chaplain who works with Ner Tamid, said that even for members who are not especially observant, participating in the society can be an affirmation of their identity.
He added that seeing groups of Jewish firefighters gather is especially powerful in today’s political climate. “It’s a very, very visible reminder that Jews are welcome, and Jews can serve proudly among all the communities,” he said.
Ner Tamid is one of the oldest fraternities in the Fire Department and used to be one of the most robust, said Lt. Abe Englard, 43, a former president of the group who lives in Yonkers. In the years after World War II, he said, the society hosted an annual dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, with hundreds of members in attendance.
But a broader drop-off in firefighter recruitment hurts its numbers. When Chief Klein took the reins of the group last year, he made it his priority to attract new Jewish recruits to the department. The society created an Instagram page and held outreach events at Jewish high schools and synagogues. Members, who pay $40 a year in dues, have also worked with the New York Board of Rabbis to get the word out.
“When I took over as president, I said at the first meeting, ‘I want each of you to go out and bring someone back,’” Chief Klein said.
The efforts have paid off. The group has added 12 members this year, he said, double last year’s growth.
Another of Ner Tamid’s goals is raising money to fund more internal and community programming. Members are starting a weekly Torah study held over the phone, and there has been talk of a Shabbat weekend in the Catskills. Chief Klein said he wants to revive a fire-safety event around Hanukkah, when members would hand out smoke detectors in Crown Heights, which has a large Jewish population. He is also registering the group as a nonprofit organization so that member dues can be tax-deductible.
Members get together once a month over a meal and talk about whatever is on their minds, like possible career moves, scheduling shifts around the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and keeping kosher while living in a firehouse. The board then takes their concerns to department leaders.
Some gatherings take place around holidays. In early October, the society held a Sukkot celebration at a member’s home in Hewlett on Long Island. About 25 people, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, sit around tables in the traditional outdoor hut, sharing six-foot pastrami and turkey sandwiches. They chatted about an upcoming Hanukkah event and an exam some EMS workers planned to take to qualify for promotions.
Like other Jewish organizations, Ner Tamid has been a source of mutual support for members reeling from the Israel-Hamas war. Chief Klein recalled that after the initial attack, one member texted a group chat that he hadn’t heard from relatives who lived in a certain part of Israel. “Someone else said: ‘I have family a couple of towns away. I can send someone over there.’”
And with anti-Semitic incidents on the rise across the country, members said that the group also serves as a safe space to discuss troubling experiences closer to home.
“A lot of our members wear yarmulkes, and when they work on the street they can experience comments,” Lieutenant Englard said. “I remember I once walked into a patient’s home, and I was wearing a yarmulke and he said, ‘Don’t touch me.’”
“Our job as a society is to support people in whatever way they need,” he added. “Sometimes people just want to talk about it.”