Firefighters enjoy a free Thanksgiving meal provided by the Kesher Israel congregation, at Station1 in Harrisburg Thursday November 24
Sometime around midnight, deep inside Kesher Israel Congregation’s big old South Bend industrial gas stove, the fire went out.
More than 130 pounds of turkey stopped roasting.
About 20 volunteers had spent the evening before Thanksgiving cutting 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, baking dozens of pumpkin pies and plucking stray feathers from the turkeys.
They were preparing for the Orthodox Jewish synagogue’s 10th annual feast for Harrisburg city firemen and police officers.
The tradition began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
“Everyone was feeling aware of the sacrifice our firefighters were willing to go through for us,” explained Rabbi Akiva Males. “They said, ‘We’ve got to find some time during the year to thank our local firefighters.’ Everyone felt Thanksgiving was the most appropriate time to do that — a way to really put the ‘thanks’ in Thanksgiving.”
Originally just for city firemen, last year the program was expanded to include city police officers.
“They’re keeping our communities safe. It’s a great way to express our thanks,” said Males.
He is quick to note the idea originated with Rabbi Chaim Schertz and congregation member Mark Powers.
Schertz has since retired.
Powers, a former volunteer fireman and manager of the kosher food program at Franklin & Marshall College, continues to lead the project.
Powers — a stout, no-nonsense presence in the kitchen — was pleased that the 10th anniversary of the feast brought out more volunteers than ever before, but he also knew those old stoves were temperamental.
Around 1 a.m., he went back to check on them, and was glad he did.
He relit the stoves and then settled in for a long night.
There was no way he was going to find himself “birdless” this Thanksgiving.
Powers stayed in the kitchen until 4:30 a.m., when the turkeys’ slow roasting was complete.
He went home, slept for a couple of hours and was back in the kitchen with water boiling and sweet potatoes roasting when the second wave of volunteers arrived just before 9 a.m.
Powers, dressed in his professional whites, coordinated them as they arrived.
Most of the work was already done, he said. “We’re just putting the finishing touches on it.”
Ten slow-roasted kosher turkeys were lined up in pans on the kitchen’s stainless steel island.
A number of them had been donated by the Giant Foods store on Linglestown Road.
Beth Voystock and Jack Ogun helped Powers cut apart the birds and separate the white and dark meat into portions.
Powers kept an eye on his help, and instructed them how to do better.
“At home you do things your own way,” said Voystock. “Here, I want to do it the professional way.”
One of the unintended benefits of helping in the kitchen, noted Rabbi Males, is learning tricks of the trade from a professional chef.
“Last year, my wife learned to carve a turkey from Mark,” he said.
As the noon hour approached, the feast came together.
The aroma of sweet potatoes filled the kitchen.
Pound after pound of broccoli was dropped into swift boiling water.
Pies and dinner rolls and cranberry sauce were packed for transport.
By noon, everything was on its way to the men and women who leave their families at home on Thanksgiving to be where they are needed if a fire — or a fight — breaks out anywhere in the city.
“It’s a great thank you,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Snyder as firefighters at Fire Station No. 1 on North Sixth Street received plates heaped with food.
Some of the members of Kesher Israel Congregation sat down with them to eat.
“We’re here away from our families,” said Snyder. “We have the opportunity to have some fellowship with [the congregation]. It’s just a good feeling. We really appreciate it.”
Across town at Police Headquarters on Walnut Street, there was no convivial atmosphere.
Officers came in now and then, and ate alone or in pairs.
“Our officers are going from call to call to call, and they’re jumping in here between calls,” explained Sgt. Kelly Wetzel. “It’s very difficult for them to get a good meal in, anyway.”
That doesn’t mean the feast was any less appreciated.
“Our officers really do not get a lot of public accolades and positive outreach toward us,” Wetzel said. “Usually when we’re dealing with people, bad things are happening to them or they’re doing bad things.
“This is a very considerate gesture,” he said. “It’s a very nice thing for them to do.”
As Powers watched the firefighters sit down to eat, he considered the program he began 10 years ago and counted the blessings.
“I’m happy we are able to do it,” he said. “I’m happy it’s continuing. I’m pleased we have so many volunteers. I’m pleased they haven’t forgotten the people who are protecting us. I’m pleased to say we haven’t forgotten. It’s real gratifying.”
But his work was not yet done.
“I have to go home and make my own turkey,” he said. “I’ve got company coming.”