By Lisa Kava
When we think of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), rabbis and other religious leaders don’t immediately come to mind. Yet the oldest and longest serving member of the NYPD is an Upper West Side Rabbi. Rabbi Alvin Kass, 85, joined the NYPD Chaplains Unit as chaplain in 1966, got promoted to Chief Chaplain in 2002, received three-star recognition in 2017, and plans to stay a while.
The NYPD Chaplain’s Unit is a group within the NYPD, comprised of 12 religious officials representing a variety of faiths. Rabbi Kass is currently the only Jewish chaplain. The chaplains provide counseling and emotional support to members of the police force. The chaplains also participate in police department members’ religious ceremonies.
As Chief Chaplain, Rabbi Kass is involved in education as well as counseling. He teaches at the Police Academy, he advises and trains the younger chaplains, and teaches philosophy and religion at John Jay College, where he is on the faculty.
Rabbi Kass, originally from Paterson, New Jersey attended Columbia University and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He began his career as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, subsequently holding rabbi positions at synagogues in Brooklyn and Queens. Rabbi Kass recalled receiving a phone call one day from a representative of the Jewish Board of Rabbis looking for a Jewish chaplain to join the NYPD. “I went for the interview and it was very pleasant,” Rabbi Kass told West Side Rag. “I had arranged a handball game at the Vanderbilt Y for after the interview and had my gym bag with me,” he said. “One of the members of the selection committee, Chief Detective Albert Seedman, asked me about the gym bag. I told him I was going to play handball,” said Rabbi Kass. “A few hours later I got the call offering me the job. He must have wanted a Rabbi who played handball.”
West Side Rag had the privilege of interviewing Rabbi Kass by phone.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
West Side Rag: Tell us about the NYPD Chaplains Unit and about your role.
Rabbi Kass: A chaplain in the police department plays multiple roles. I teach morals and ethics classes at the Police Academy. Officers can come to a chaplain and know that whatever is said is in total confidence. It’s a marvelous benefit. We do it for everyone, not just people of our own faith. Chaplains respond to emergencies day and night, we go where we are needed. We offer comfort to police officers who are seriously injured and to families of officers whose lives have been taken. Police officers have all sorts of stressors and strains. Many relate to family life. Police officers are subject to emergency calls. Wives and children are often worried.
West Side Rag: Do police officers in need of support seek you out and ask for help?
Rabbi Kass: They will come to me when struggling. But I also go to them. I visit three precincts a week. I get to know the officers. They get to know me. I make myself available to them. When they see me, they might ask to make an appointment. I can meet them in Dunkin Donuts, I can meet them anywhere. Most of what we do is non-denominational, plenty of Catholics come to me and tell me things.
West Side Rag: What changes have you observed in the NYPD over the years?
Rabbi Kass: I joined shortly before the Knapp Commission hearings [which started in 1971]. It was a difficult time. Soon after the hearings ended a new commissioner, Patrick Murphy, was appointed. He reformed the department. He created a police department ethics board of high ranking individuals and asked me to be on it. We would come together to discuss issues. I am the only surviving member of that original board. It is an important source of ethical insight. Choices are complicated and the ethics board provides guidance as to how the officers should move.
During my years on the job, I have been astounded and amazed by the professionalism of the officers here. This is the greatest police department in the world with the most sophisticated crime technology. After the 9/11 attacks, we became the only police department in the world to assign officers to foreign countries. They will fly there and keep the department briefed here in counterintelligence. This department has had an amazing ability to respond to a changing world.
West Side Rag: How is the morale among police officers at the moment in light of current events with police departments all over the country?
Rabbi Kass: It has been very difficult lately to deal with the tensions going on within society at large. The world is imperfect. The NYPD is imperfect. This is a job where inevitably you encounter morally chaotic situations. You have to make split-second decisions where life and death hang (in the balance.) 99% of the time the right decision is made. We can be very proud of the NYPD. NYC police officers are in demand all over the country. Everybody knows that a NYC police officer is the best individual there is. There is a lot of bad publicity going on in the rest of the country. The title of police officer has been smeared in many places.
West Side Rag; Have there been many suicides within the department?
Rabbi Kass: Yes, too many. We are going around to all of the precincts letting people know we are available. One of the most moving encounters I have experienced stemmed from a class in philosophy of religion that I taught at John Jay College. Years later, I got a letter from a former police officer student who had been in my class. He said it had been on his mind to write me a letter. At a certain point in his life, the officer’s son had died and he was depressed. He thought of suicide. He took my class and it changed his whole perspective, he said. To help a person find meaning in life at a very dark time is incredibly rewarding.
West Side Rag: Are there many Jewish police officers in the NYPD?
Rabbi Kass: There is an organization of Jewish personnel within the NYPD called the Shomrin Society. It has about 3,000 members. The NYPD is the most democratic society I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. People of every race, religion, color, and creed interact with each other. It is constantly stimulating.
WSR: How do you feel about the Upper West Side?
Rabbi Kass: Living on the UWS is a return to my youth. I went to college and rabbinical school on the UWS, so I have come full circle. I live a few blocks from Lincoln Center and I love going to the concerts there. The UWS is so diverse, it’s pluralism at its best. There are people of every religion you can imagine in my building. I love the UWS, to me it is the essence of NYC.
WSR: Any thoughts of retirement?
Rabbi Kass: No. I love what I do and I make an important contribution. As long as I am able to do it, God willing, I will continue.