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An 'Unorthodox' Calling for Two Teens

April 27, 2011 By:
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Yossi Colman

The alarm sounded in the middle of the night. And like all members of the Union Fire Association in Bala Cynwyd, volunteer firefighter Yossi Colman, all of 18, got an emergency call on his radio.

Even though the incident happened on Shabbat, the teen recalled leaping out of bed, heading for the firehouse and arriving at the smoky scene within minutes. After all, saving a life takes precedence over other Jewish laws, he noted.

Colman quickly realized that the house looked familiar. The family belonged to his shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.

Hours after the company -- which teams three professionals with about 40 volunteers -- got the situation under control, the senior at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station ran into the family at synagogue. He relayed that they were, to say the least, appreciative.

In December, Colman and his Kohelet classmate Adi Cohen -- who is part of the Penn Wynne Fire Company in Wynnewood -- completed the grueling, 200-hour course to earn their statewide firefighting certification.

About a dozen high school students are part of the seven volunteer fire brigades serving Lower Merion Township, according to the municipality's fire chief, Chas McGarvey.

Three days a week, the teens went to Bucks County -- since the local course was partially held on Saturdays -- and hit the books, studying the chemistry and physics of combustion. They also completed intense physical training, learning to perform numerous tasks, like dragging a high-pressure hose while hauling 60-plus pounds of equipment.

Now that they're both 18, they are legally allowed to climb a fire ladder and enter a burning building. They can now also respond to calls between midnight and 5 a.m.

School hours, however, are off-limits. State regulations prohibit high school-age firefighters from bringing their radios into the classroom.

Colman's the lone high school student and one of three Orthodox Jews in his company; Cohen is both the single high school student and only Orthodox Jew at Penn Wynne.

Cohen, who plays basketball and soccer for Kohelet, and also edits the school newspaper, said that her interest in firefighting sprang from restlessness.

Unable to sleep one night about two years ago, she said she fixated on the sound of a fire engine and thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to do that?"

The member of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood wound up joining her company while still a sophomore. She has been training with the group ever since, even though she's only been certified a few months.

Something That Benefits All

Cohen, who has attended Jewish day school her whole life, said that part of her motivation stemmed from the desire to do something that benefits all.

When asked about the most memorable call she's responded to, she described the rescue last year of an elderly woman from a burning vehicle. She said she remained calm at the scene, but "went home and freaked out."

She added that the exciting part -- saving a life -- took about 15 minutes. Cleaning up after the accident took about two hours.

How does she feel she's treated in this mostly male club? Respectfully, she said, if not quite like one of the guys.

"I can tell that they feel a little protective of me. For example, they try to use proper language around me, and never make fun of me like they do to the new boys who join," she said.

Colman, who followed his father Jake into the company, said that he has no plans to pursue firefighting as a profession, partly because he doesn't think it would support an Orthodox lifestyle.

"What I like is the volunteer aspect of it. It's selfless, as opposed to when you are professional," he said.

He added that he's wanted to fight fires for as long as he can remember. In addition to wanting to emulate his father, he said the endeavor amounts to an act of Kiddush Hashem, or sanctifying God's name.

The younger Colman added that the other volunteers now order some kosher food when they all have a meal together. And when he and his father respond to a call on Shabbat, someone else will fill out the paperwork, since writing is prohibited and not essential to saving lives.

Father and son also came up with the idea for the company's most recent fundraiser. Several firefighters oversaw a pre-Passover community chametz-burning at the Kohelet high school, where participants gave donations to the firehouse.

Besides all these significant motivators and events, Yossi Colman also insisted that, with firefighting, there's definitely "such a cool factor" to it all.

"When I get a call," he said, "I get a huge adrenaline rush."

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