“Nobody in the world, no one, looks out for rabbis like Rabbi Joe Potasnik.”
So spoke Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, on Thursday night. The crowd, which spilled out into standing-room, had gathered to honor Rabbi Joseph Potasnik on the 42nd anniversary of his service to Congregation Mount Sinai. Joining congregants were elected officials, noted dignitaries and special guests such as recently-retired New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera. As events unfolded, it was again clear that each person in the rotunda of Brooklyn Borough Hall, and the ceremonial courtroom, is as dear to Rabbi Potasnik as he is to them.
Earlier in the evening, local elected officials presented proclamations to Rabbi Potasnik. Headlining that part of the ceremony was a tribute from Monsignor David Cassato, whom Potasnik said is “my own rabbi.” Msgr. Cassato is a NYPD chaplain, and pastor of St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church, one of the largest parishes in Brooklyn.
Among the elected officials were Borough President Eric Adams, longtime State Assemblywoman Joan Millman and City Councilmember Steven Levin. Also saluting Rabbi Potasnik, but free of the responsibility of issuing Proclamations, was immediate past Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who verbally proclaimed Potasnik as “America’s rabbi.”
The tributes continued in Borough Hall’s ceremonial courtroom. Rabbi Kirshner said, “In his role as the executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, he is the [nexus] where rabbis of all stripes, all backgrounds, all denominations, all genders and all ages come together. The rabbinate can be a lonely world…Joe has this ‘je ne sais quoi,’ this special quality that brings every-single member together…He finds the programs, and the opportunity for us to come together and celebrate our unity with all people. He is the person who infuses humor and into every single rabbi. He literally—one at a time—makes them believe in themselves and help people, and help change the world for the better.” Then, switching from narrative into addressing Rabbi Potasnik directly, Kirshner said: “You are the best leader, though, because you lead by example. You don’t tell people what to do; you show them what to do. To me, you have been much more than a rabbi. You have been a friend and a mentor.”
Also giving poignant tributes were FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano and the Rev. Tom Perez, pastor of the Spanish Christian Church in Harlem that was destroyed in the March 12 gas explosion. Kevin McCormack of WABC and co-host on their longtime program, “Religion on the Line,” which airs on Sunday mornings, also saluted him. The Color Guard was provided by the Emerald Society of the FDNY. The 84th Precinct, Captain Maximo Tolentino and his officers, was also recognized during the ceremony. Firefighter Regina Wilson of the FDNY led the singing of the U.S. National Anthem, and Cantor Paul Zim led the singing of Israel’s national anthem, “Haktivah.”
Also in attendance were members of Rabbi Potasnik’s family, including his son, Harrison Potasnik; and the rabbi’s uncle, Jack Jacobs, whose presence was testimony of the survival of the Jewish community. Addressing Harrison, Rabbi Potasnik said, “The greatest honor I ever achieved was being your father.”
Much of the applause went to the exchanges between Rabbi Potasnik, an avid Red Sox fan (he has Massachusetts roots) and Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, and their deep friendship stood out.
“Let me tell you one quick story about Mariano,” Rabbi Potasnik told the crowd. “So, I bring a Bible—a JPS (Jewish Publications Society Bible), to him. And next to it, a Christian Bible. And I said to him. ‘Mariano, this is the Jewish Bible. This is how it all began.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Joe, I’m a closer.’”
Later in the ceremony, Rabbi Potasnik turned to Mariano Rivera and said, “In your honor, in appreciation for all you have done for me, I bought myself a New York Yankees yarmulke. When you buy a yarmulke, you should buy one for another person. So I bought for you a Boston Red Sox yarmulke,” he said, to great laughter.
Rabbi Potasnik later told the Brooklyn Eagle that he and Rivera met a few years ago. “We were introduced by a mutual friend. I found in Mariano Rivera a very spiritual person. He wanted to learn more about my tradition. I wanted to know more about his tradition. As a result, we spent time together studying the Bible. I am going to Israel in August with his family. We grew closer to one another. In coming closer to one another, we recognized that we can be different faiths and one family with ultimate respect for the other person.”
Referring to a rich Hebrew numerological tradition, Rabbi Potasnik explained to the gathering the significance of the number 42, which is the number of years he has served Congregation Mount Sinai—and Mariano Rivera’s jersey number.
“Rabbi Israel Aaron (Rabbi Potasnik’s predecessor, who served just a little longer—for 48 years) turned to me and said, ‘Just one thing, this is not a wealthy congregation but it’s a good congregation.’ For 42 years I kept hoping he was 50 percent wrong. But he was proven right in all of those things;” Rabbi Potasnik said with much love, speaking of the congregation’s ethic to always “make room for one more at table.’
“It’s said in life we are surrounded by two angels—one of memory and one of hope,” said Rabbi Potasnik. “Tonight, I’m blessed to have both with me: to look back and have some great memories; and to look ahead with great hope, as a congregation, as a community, that always says, ‘there’s room for one more.’”