Harry Berkowitz is a rabbi on the move. It could be no other way for the head chaplain for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest transportation network in North America.
Berkowitz developed and oversees a program that ministers to upwards of 65,000 MTA employees working an over 5,000-square-mile area fanning out from New York City through Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut. It’s not the job the Orthodox rabbi originally set out to do, but from his first subway ride-along with transit police in 1978, he knew he had found his true calling.
Three and a half decades later, Berkowitz, 67, is still chugging away, but no longer going it alone. Having steadily built up the MTA’s chaplaincy, he is now assisted by a team of 100 volunteer clergy of every religion and cultural background. They’re on call 24/7 to support the MTA family in coping with everything from run-of-the-mill personal and employment issues, to fatal train incidents (nearly 100 people died along the MTA’s 2,047 miles of tracks in 2013), to unfathomable national tragedies like 9/11.
“I took a cue from Moses and said, ‘Let me go see the burdens of my brethren,’” Berkowitz tells The Times of Israel about his initial interest in seeing if he could be of service to the transit police.
After being asked to serve as chaplain by members of the Gonen Society, the fraternal organization for Jewish transit police, he visited transit police stations and rode the subway with officers in the wee hours of the morning.
“You get to know the police if you go out with them on patrol,” the rabbi says. “It took a couple of years for them to start opening up to me, but then they began speaking with me about their job conditions and asked me to represent them in meetings with the chief. Then they told other transit workers to contact me with their issues.”
Berkowitz, who sports a trim white beard and black fedora, believes he gained the MTA employees’ trust by working closely with both the transit police command staff and the unions. “I worked in a supportive capacity. I was a neutral advocate for both sides,” he says.
In the 10 years that Berkowitz volunteered his services before being hired (part-time) as the MTA’s first official chaplain, he kept his day job in Jewish education. A graduate of Yeshiva University in Hebrew literature and Jewish history, he received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni at Yeshivat Eretz Yisrael in Brooklyn. He worked as a teacher and principal at area Hebrew schools, and earned a degree in special education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
In 1991, William Bratton, who was at the time chief of the New York City Transit Police, hired Berkowitz full-time. That elevated the rabbi’s position, enabling him to participate in the MTA president’s staff meetings, as well as to gain support in growing the volunteer chaplaincy staff.
With no budget for pastoral care training, Berkowitz looks for naturals.
“It’s about God-given skills. You can have all the degrees in the world, but it’s not the right job for you if you don’t have the right kind of personality,” he remarks. “I look at how chaplains can connect with people in difficult moments.”
‘I look at how chaplains can connect with people in difficult moments’
He also seeks religious leaders with a universal outlook. “We don’t let particular issues interfere with our work. We don’t preach or pray. We just provide the presence of a chaplain.”
Berkowitz, who has also managed to work as the spiritual leader of the Rockwood Park Jewish Center in Howard Beach, Queens for the past 17 years, is careful not to refer to himself as a rabbi while on the job with the MTA.
“I go by Chaplain Harry Berkowitz. I don’t want to create a sectarian perception,” he says.
Berkowitz attributes his comfort with a wide range of people to his own experiences as an immigrant to the US. Born in a British detention camp on Cyprus to Czech Holocaust survivor parents, he arrived with his family from Israel to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn at age 10. Although his family was very religious, he was educated in public schools.
“I had no English and had to go in to the first grade when I was already 10 years old. But I learned the language and advanced quickly,” he recalls. “And in high school, I met a lot of different kinds of people.”
September 11, 2001 and the months following were the most difficult period in the rabbi’s long MTA chaplaincy career.
“MTA employees were scared for weeks and months afterwards,” he recounts. “The chaplains’ mere presence was so important. We were a shoulder to cry on.”
Berkowitz was on the scene at Ground Zero an hour and a half after the planes hit the Twin Towers.
“It was very strange. We were all shocked,” he says. “We helped look for victims, despite the dangers.”
The rabbi coordinated the MTA chaplains from a staging ground in Brooklyn. A van shuttled them in to Manhattan to assist a range of city agencies, and to check on the immense community of MTA employees and their families. Miraculously, not one MTA employee was killed on 9/11. The extended MTA community was not as lucky. According to Berkowitz, 150 members of MTA employees’ families were killed.
Thankfully, there are less dire losses that the rabbi deals with as MTA head chaplain. “Two to three years ago, I got a call from a man who lost his tefillin,” he says. “I told him to fill out a form for the MTA’s Lost Property Unit. I have made a plan with the folks in the LPU that they would call me so I could help them locate the owner of any religious item that remained unclaimed.”
In the past two years, Berkowitz has a 2-for-4 record as far as reuniting lost tefillin with their owners. In one case, he tracked down the owner by recognizing the writing style on the parchment and tracking down a specific religious scribe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who in turn remembered the man to whom he had sold the phylacteries.
Returning sforim, or Jewish religious books, people have left behind on the subway or train is usually easier. People are more likely to write their name and other identifying information in their books than on their tefillin.
‘We were a shoulder to cry on’
As head chaplain for the MTA, Berkowitz has an official uniform, but he only wears it when participating in ceremonies or when he is on official transit police business.
“One time I was wearing my uniform while riding the subway through [the Hasidic neighborhood] Borough Park, and an elderly couple came up to me and asked me if I was the mashgiach [kosher supervisor] for the train,” he says with a laugh.
Married 42 years and the father of three and the grandfather of seven, Berkowitz has no intention of cutting back on his MTA work. Even with two of his children living with their families in Israel, he doesn’t see anything derailing him from continuing to minister full-time to his ecumenical flock “of biblical proportions.”
“I am hoping to do this for many more years, God willing,” he says. “It’s not just a job. It’s a family. It’s the best congregation I could ever find.”