Last year had a historic end for Rabbi Alvin Kass, the chief chaplain of the New York City Police Department. In mid-December, the NYPD honored Kass for 50 years of service and promoted him to three-star chaplain, a first for the police force.
“Looking ahead, [50 years] seemed like an eternity,” Kass said. “It passed in the snap of a finger. I had no idea I’d be around 50 years in the department.”
Kass is the third Jewish chaplain in the history of the NYPD. He is also a former head of the New York Board of Rabbis. He has served seven mayors and 16 police commissioners, and was on call during the ultimate test of 9/11.
He also earned a place in NYPD lore by resolving a hostage situation with two pastrami sandwiches from the now-closed Carnegie Deli.
“I don’t have a secret,” Kass, 80, said in a video interview by the NYPD Chaplains Unit. “I just do this instinctively. I enjoy life, I love life, I’m thankful for each day.”
Kass joined the department in December 1966. Then he was an Air Force chaplain from Paterson, New Jersey, with a congregation in Queens.
“I got a call one day from the New York Board of Rabbis,” he said. “The Jewish chaplain in the Police Department had died.”
That chaplain was Cantor Isidore Frank, the second Jewish chaplain in NYPD history. The first was Rabbi Abraham Blum, in 1911.
‘I had never been in a police station’
“[The Board of Rabbis] invited me to interview for the position,” Kass said. “I didn’t know if there had been other rabbis invited to interview. The following day, it was crowded at headquarters.
“I didn’t think I would be chosen. Much to my surprise, after they spoke to me, they hired me on the spot.”
Kass had been class salutatorian at Columbia University. He also has an MA from Columbia, a PhD in philosophy from New York University and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
But, he said, “at the time, I did not know a policeman. I had never been in a police station. It was quite a surprise.”
On the beat
New York police work did have its unpredictable side. One night in 1981, Kass received an emergency call to a midtown Manhattan office building. A man had entered the building “to do harm to a woman he had been romantically entangled with,” Kass recalled. “He was holding her hostage.”
Officers “heard him making statements that showed he was Jewish,” Kass said. “Maybe I could try to reach him. We spoke the whole night to no avail.”
But “in the morning, he was hungry,” Kass said. “I was hungry too. I said, ‘Suppose we get you a sandwich.’ We sent an officer to the Carnegie Deli. He came back with two pastramis, one for [the hostage-taker] and one for me.”
Kass gave the gunman a sandwich. As promised, he surrendered his gun in exchange for the delicacy — but said he had a second gun. He was also still hungry.
Kass hadn’t eaten his sandwich.
“The officer [who brought the sandwiches] did not know I keep kosher,” Kass explained. “I only eat kosher meat.”
‘It marked the only time a Carnegie Deli sandwich traveled in a police car with the sirens blaring’
Kass said he would give the man the second sandwich in exchange for his second gun.
When this happened, Kass said, “Officers rushed him. That was the end of the hostage situation.”
Kass earned a commendation, and the incident was mentioned in “How to Feed Friends and Influence People,” a 2005 book about the Carnegie Deli co-written by then-owner Milton Parker and Allyn Freeman.
“It marked the only time a Carnegie Deli sandwich traveled in a police car with the sirens blaring,” Parker and Freeman wrote.
Trial by fire
Kass would also come to know tragedy on the department.
In 1986, he was at his younger son’s bar mitzvah, “a proud father getting a lot of nachas [pride] for his wonderful performance,” he said. “[In] the middle of the proceedings, I got a call that a Jewish police officer had been mortally wounded in Far Rockaway. I had to leave everything and help inform the family what happened.”
‘You have an opportunity to try to be of service to people in their most pressing hour of need’
“Tragedy knows no boundaries, and respects no particular other concern. You do what you have to do [when] duty calls. In essence, it’s 24/7 availability. Certainly, you’re aware of the uncertainty of life,” he said.
However, he added, “there’s a feeling that you have an opportunity to try to be of service to people in their most pressing hour of need.”
Arguably the city’s greatest hour of need was September 11, 2001. That day, Kass was on duty at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
“I encountered a police officer who was crying like a baby, ‘What just happened?’” Kass said. “I had to calm him down. He just had been appointed to the force. It was his baptism of fire.
“I impressed upon him that I could understand his deep emotional reaction. I felt the same way. But so many people depend on us. We had to marshal strength and the ability to serve them, and keep our own emotions under cover.”
In times of need
In 2002, the NYPD promoted Kass to chief chaplain. He oversees nine chaplains serving the department’s 50,000 personnel – 35,000 in uniform, 15,000 civilians.
Kass said his typical day consists of “meetings [with] various police officials, concerns regarding Jewish personnel, issues with dealing with neighborhoods during the time of the Jewish holidays, problems of anti-Semitism, appointments with officers who want to see me about personal problems, teaching in the police academy, going to different precincts, talking to officers.”
‘There were no provisions available so an officer could observe the Sabbath or Jewish holidays’
He is also an advisor to the commissioner on issues related to the Jewish community, and is the chaplain of both the FBI’s New York office and the NYPD Shomrim Society (not affiliated with any other groups under the Shomrim name), an organization for the department’s Jewish officers. The society has 3,000 members.
When Kass joined the NYPD, “there were no provisions available so an officer could observe the Sabbath or Jewish holidays,” he said. “I was able to effect change and policy.”
He ministers to all members of the department.
“I would say he treats all police officers like family, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish or any other religion,” said Joseph Cohen, president of the Shomrim Society and a detective in the Ninth Precinct.
The NYPD is predominantly Roman Catholic, said Kass. He joked, if there was a Guinness Book of Records category for the rabbi who has attended the most funeral masses, “I would win hands down.”
He described interfaith relations in the department as good — generally speaking.
‘There is less anti-Semitism in the department than anywhere else, for a very simple reason — we depend on each other for survival’
“In my experience, there is less anti-Semitism in the police department than anywhere else, for a very simple reason — we all depend on each other for survival.
“If you get into trouble and need help, another officer will respond. You do not worry [what] kind of support [you’ll get] because of a supporting officer’s race, color, sex, creed. We all recognize we need each other.”
Last June, Kass himself needed help after an unknown individual attacked him during a morning power walk on the Upper West Side.
“There’s not much to say,” he said. “It was my usual walk. Someone knocked me down from behind. They did not say a word.”
He said that “we didn’t think” there was any additional motive. But, he said, “there seems to be an upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout the country and the world, related to a lot of things going on in the world.”
Our Chief Chaplain Rabbi Kass celebrating 50 years of dedicated service & continues to provide spiritual guidance & support to our members. pic.twitter.com/zWB9FGxeRs
— NYPD Chaplains Unit (@NYPDchaplains) December 28, 2016
Despite the dangers of his work, Kass will continue in his position. He is the lone Jewish chaplain in the department.
“I’m sure other people could do the job and do it well,” he said.
Detective Cohen is not so sure.
“It’s a testament to the respect and admiration the job has for him as he does for the job,” Cohen said about Kass’ half-century of service.
“Not very many people achieve that milestone… He’s made such an impression on the job that it’s not really possible to imagine the job without the impact he’s had on it,” said Cohen.