Rabbi Aaron Gottesman, 63; longtime fire,
By Elizabeth Fitzsimons
April 6, 2005
Rabbi Aaron Gottesman had a knack for showing up at the right time.
A firefighter was injured, and the department would be about to call for a chaplain.
"The rabbi would magically appear," said Augie Ghio, San Diego's homeland security chief and
a former assistant chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
"He was like Superman."
Rabbi Gottesman, the chaplain to the city's police and fire departments for three decades, kept
his scanner close and his fire suit in the trunk of his car, and knew intuitively when and where
he was needed. He could connect with anyone, no matter where they came from or what they
"I don't care what religion someone is," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2003. "If a
person is sharing his humanness with me, I'm not going to ask if they are Jewish or Catholic or
Protestant. I will bless them to the greatest ability of my soul."
Rabbi Gottesman died yesterday morning at age 63. The rabbi, who lived in Tierrasanta, had
been fighting complications from diabetes for several years.
Tomorrow, he will be honored with a firefighter's funeral.
"He was a very civic-minded guy who thought a lot about people who risked their lives in
public safety," said Sheriff Bill Kolender, a former San Diego police chief.
Rabbi Gottesman came from 40 generations of rabbis, one of them the Baal Shem Tov, the
founder of modern Hasidism. He was considered a true "mensch," the Yiddish word that
means a good, admirable person.
He was the first rabbi of Congregation Beth Tefilah and founded the Jewish Fellowship Center.
He was a chaplain and volunteer to many agencies and organizations, including: the New York
police and fire departments; the FBI; Sharp hospitals; state and federal prisons; the San Diego
Burn Institute; and the San Diego Heart Association.
San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy proclaimed Aug. 4, 2003, to be Rabbi Aaron Gottesman Day.
Last year he was named the Man of the Year by organizers of the Southern California Irish
Congress St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Somehow, he also found time to be a free-lance photographer, as well as a reserve officer with
the San Diego Police Department.
Rabbi Gottesman was known for his compassion and sense of humor, even after both his legs
were amputated because of diabetes.
"He said, 'If I stopped laughing, that means I'm dead,' " said daughter Judith Gottesman, of
Rabbi Gottesman was born Sept. 27, 1941, in Brooklyn. His father, a rabbi, served as a
volunteer police and fire department chaplain.
"I loved to watch the firemen slide down the pole," he said in 1995.
"Then I chased after the firetrucks on my bicycle."
His home was filled with joking and warmth, said the rabbi's cousin, Fay Glass, of Staten
Island. And his mother and father's relationship shaped the husband and father he became.
"His parents had the most wonderful marriage, the most incredible marriage," Glass said.
The elder Rabbi Gottesman also was a military chaplain, and was assigned a post in Puerto
Rico, where Aaron Gottesman spent his senior year of high school.
Upon graduation, he attended Yeshiva University in New York, and graduated from New York
University. Before he became a rabbi, Aaron Gottesman thought of becoming a veterinarian.
His chemistry grades weren't good enough, "so he became a rabbi," Judith Gottesman said.
"Being a rabbi was in his blood."
He was ordained in 1967 and in 1968 came to San Diego to lead the new Congregation Beth
Tefilah in the College Area. There, he met his wife, Elaine, daughter of the congregation's vice
president. Seven months later, the couple married. They had two daughters, now in their 30s.
In his first year in San Diego, Rabbi Gottesman founded with Kolender the San Diego Police
Department Chaplaincy Program.
The rabbi's work took the family to congregations in Encino, from 1967 to 1971, and then to
Greenville, S.C., for seven years.
After returning to San Diego, Rabbi Gottesman founded the Jewish Fellowship Center, which
serves unaffiliated members of the Jewish community nationwide.
He responded to countless crime and fire scenes, and to the city's worst tragedies: the 1978
PSA crash in North Park that killed 144 people; and the 1984 McDonald's massacre in San
Ysidro in which 21 people were killed.
"I can remember, years ago, we'd break a second alarm fire and we'd have some evacuations.
And there you would have the rabbi in his turnout coat," said Ghio, the former assistant fire
If the crews had handed Rabbi Gottesman a hose, no doubt the rabbi would have helped fight
the fire, Ghio said.
"He didn't push himself on people. He was affable. He had a self-deprecating humor that made
people comfortable," Ghio said.
"He wasn't there in an intrusive manner. He was there to be part of the process."
After the rabbi's legs were amputated in 2000, he continued to attend and speak at firefighter
funerals and graduations. Firefighters pitched in to build ramps and make his home
As his health deteriorated, Rabbi Gottesman spent more time at home, sitting in the front
yard, where he'd watch the birds and visit with friends and firefighters.
"We had firefighters hugging him and crying, saying, 'You're such an inspiration to me,' "
Judith Gottesman said.
The funeral is planned for noon tomorrow at El Camino Cemetery in Sorrento Valley. The
rabbi's casket will arrive on a fire engine. A fire helicopter will make a water drop and then join
a police helicopter for a flyover.
Besides his wife and daughter Judith, Rabbi Gottesman is survived by daughter Ziva
Gottesman of San Diego and brothers Uriel Gottesman of Washington, D.C., and Meyer
Gottesman of Georgia.
Donations may be sent to the Rabbi Aaron Gottesman Fund at San Diego Firefighters Federal
Credit Union, 10509 San Diego Mission Road, Suite A, San Diego, CA 92108. Funds will go to
the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind and the San Diego Zoo's Australasian exhibit.
Rabbi Aaron Gottesman, 63; longtime fire, police chaplain | The San Diego Union-Tribune*