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NYPD’s Chief Rabbi Honored for 50 Years of Service

Alvin Kass is the first chaplain in NYPD history to become a three-star chief

by
Abby W. Schachter
December 22, 2016
NYPD / Facebook
NYPD Chief Chaplain Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass at the ceremony of his promotion to three-star chief, Friday December 16, 2016. NYPD / Facebook
NYPD / Facebook
NYPD Chief Chaplain Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass at the ceremony of his promotion to three-star chief, Friday December 16, 2016. NYPD / Facebook

It happened because of handball.

In 1966, when the New York Board of Rabbis asked 30-year-old Rabbi Alvin Kass to interview for a job at the New York Police Department, he thought it so unlikely that he’d get hired and he didn’t want to waste an afternoon, that he planned to go play handball after the appointment.

When the interview was recounted to Jerome Charyn in The New York Times in 2004, Chief Albert Seedman explained how he couldn’t make up his mind about the “skinny little man” carrying a little bag with him. “After the interview,” wrote Charyn, “Seedman asked him what he was carrying in the attaché case. Rabbi Kass opened it and revealed handball gloves and a pair of sneakers. He was going from the interview to a handball game.” Apparently that was all it took because Kass was hired as the NYD’s third Jewish chaplain. He’d keep the job for five decades, and counting.

On Dec. 16, at a ceremony marking his 50 years of service, Kass was awarded a third gold star—a first for a chaplain in NYPD history. The event was inspiring because of how Kass’s experience teaches us that Jews can serve the larger community and how dedicated he is toward the NYPD. It was especially powerful to see how well Kass’s feelings of love and respect toward New York City’s finest are reciprocated by the men in uniform.

As Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill explained at the ceremony, Kass is an “institution” unto himself for all the NYPD. When he joined the police department, O’Neill recounted how Kass never knew a police officer before then. “[But] now you know us all,” O’Neill said. He told of how Kass provided much needed comfort and solace after the attacks of 9/11 and how in 1981 he ended a standoff when after a night spent trying to convince a spurned lover to release the woman he had taken hostage, Kass traded him two pastrami sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli for the perpetrator’s two guns. (Kass couldn’t eat his sandwich because it wasn’t kosher.) Once disarmed, police rushed the man and ended the standoff.

Delivering the ceremony’s invocation, Monsignor David Cassato called Kass “a beacon of light,” and Deputy Commissioner Cathleen Perez described the Chief Chaplain as the “spiritual backbone of this department for 50 years.”

Kass’s response was simple and deep. “I’ve learned to love police officers,” he said. “They are sacred and they are the first priority of chaplains.” He described how during his tenure he served seven mayors and 16 police commissioners, but that his first responsibility has always been to the men and women wearing the uniform. “We are one [under the uniform],” he declared. He said his goal was to always “augment joy and minimize sorrow.”

When he was profiled by The Wall Street Journal in 2012, Kass echoed many of the same sentiments. “My flock is a group of close to 50,000 people,” he said. “I walk around and talk to people. Some of them stroll up and tell you about very intimate things: people have marital difficulties; maybe a child is very rebellious and won’t listen, and it creates conflict between the husband and wife; some cops have a hard time managing economically.”

This type of counseling is not unlike the role Kass played for his other flock, the members of the Conservative congregation at the East Midwood Jewish Center, Brooklyn, where he served as spiritual leader for 36 years, before his retirement in 2014. And indeed, among the audience at the Police Plaza ceremony were a couple Kass married 35 years ago. Beaming with pride they said they couldn’t miss the opportunity to celebrate their rabbi’s milestone of service to the police department and to the city of New York. Kass himself thanked his congregation and his family for all the times he had to leave both to tend to the demands of the NYPD. In fact, he apologized directly to his son Danny for having to miss part of his bar mitzvah because of getting called to counsel the widow and family members of a police officer killed in the line of duty.

“The bar mitzvah story stands out,” Danny, a close friend, explained to me, “because of the juxtaposition of a family simcha with such a tragedy. But there are, perhaps, too many examples of these calls to duty to name.”

“What strikes me most about [my father’s] duty,” Danny continued, “is the egalitarianism. He has served all police officers. He was once asked by a Hispanic police officer to say a prayer at a wake, and he was moved to chant the El Maleh Rachamim. The message of comfort is ecumencial.”

Sometimes tragedy affected Kass personally, such as the devastating death of police officer Lt Daniel Farkas in Afghanistan, who used to make minyan at Kass’s shul in Brooklyn.

During his remarks, Kass spoke of the tension between the particular and the universal, of religion [versus] faith. “We all want our own religion,” he said. “We also learn that if you know only one religion you don’t know any.”

Kass has become an expert on the possibilities of religious faith and moral principles to provide compassion, love and comfort, every day and in dark times. He has been providing those to the men and women of the NYPD for 50 years and as was said often at the ceremony marking his golden anniversary, he should remain to do so for another 50 years. “All I can ask,” Rabbi Kass concluded, “is may it continue.”

Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based writer, is the author of No Child Left Alone: Getting the government out of parenting (Encounter Books, 2016). She blogs at captainmommy.com.

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