Rabbi Alvin Kass is the first and only chief chaplain of the NYPD and its longest serving member. A 57-year veteran of the force, the 87-year-old Kass has been deeply involved in the operations of the NYPD and its efforts to fight antisemitism alongside the city’s Jewish residents. As a spiritual mentor and advocate, he has helped the NYPD’s 3,000 Jewish police officers become closer to Judaism and has successfully lobbied to exempt religious Jewish officers from serving on Shabbat.
What inspired you to become a rabbi?
For a long time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and as a matter of fact, I was seriously considering going to law school and was admitted with a scholarship to Harvard. But two weeks before the term began, I decided that I really wanted to become a rabbi. I felt that I would get more inner satisfaction from helping people spiritually than from trying to navigate the law, and that it might be more fulfilling for me personally.
How did you end up becoming a police chaplain?
When I finished seminary, I did a tour of duty in the United States Air Force, which I enjoyed very much. When I completed my tour, I took a position back in Astoria, Queens with a synagogue called the Astoria Center of Israel.
I was also invited by the United Synagogue of America to edit their official quarterly publication, United Synagogue Review. At the same time, the Jewish Theological Seminary asked if I would teach part-time for them. So between my congregation, teaching, editing this magazine and having a family with young children, I was really very busy.
Then one day I got a call from Rabbi Harold Gordon, who was the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, the endorsing agency for Jewish chaplains in New York. Rabbi Gordon said to me that the Jewish chaplain of the police department had died and asked if I wanted to go down and interview for it. I told them I was really very busy, but he said, “No, no, no, you’ve got to go down. You’re perfect for this sort of thing.” So I agreed to go.
When I got there, I discovered that there were about 30 or 40 other rabbis who were also being interviewed. I didn’t want to waste the day in Manhattan, so I arranged to have a handball game with a friend of mine in midtown. I told him I would meet him after this interview. And I brought my athletic equipment with me. So I went through the interview with the police commissioner and a number of other highly placed Jewish personnel in the police department. It was a nice, pleasant conversation, but I assumed that nothing would come of it.
So I shook hands with everybody and prepared to go when a fellow by the name of Al Seedman, who was the chief of detectives, said to me, “What’s that you got?” I said, “That’s my gym bag.” So he said to me, “What do you got that for?” I said, “I’m going to play handball after this is all over.” And I departed.
Three hours later I got a call from the police department offering me the position. I never knew why, except that a few years ago The New York Times did a profile on me. And the reporter called up Al Seedman and asked him why he preferred me to the other candidates. Seedman said, “Well, the other candidates were all good, but Kass was going to play handball. And I thought that a rabbi who played handball would be a good fit for the New York City Police Department.”
Is there only one Jewish chaplain at the NYPD?
That’s correct. There are five Catholic chaplains, there are a couple of Protestant chaplains. There’s a Greek Orthodox chaplain. We have two Black Baptist chaplains. And soon we’re going to be taking on a Hindu chaplain.
What are the duties of a police chaplain?
I don’t carry a gun, and I don’t go out and do police work. That’s the function of police officers. The job of a police officer is to serve the public. My job is to serve police officers.
It’s a very involved job. Probably the heart of what we do is counsel officers who have problems. I also teach in the police academy, both police ethics and the sociology of the Jewish community in New York City, which is quite complex: You’ve got Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. You’ve got Jews who are culturally Jewish but not at all religiously Jewish. You’ve got Hasidic communities which each have their own special ways of doing things. And depending on where a police officer is assigned, he discovers that he has substantial contingents of these various types of Jews who often have different needs and different ways of looking at life and their religious faith and their relationship to the community.
I’m also the advisor to the police commissioner on matters pertaining to the Jewish community and the spiritual director of the Shomrim Society, which is the official organization of Jewish police officers.
What do you see as the cause of the increase in antisemitic attacks?
I think we’re living, quite frankly, in an acrimonious age where there are all kinds of conflicts between people that fall along partisan and cultural lines, and I think they’re contagious and ignite latent sparks of animosity that have been around for a long time. Antisemitism is a thousands-of-years-old malady, and we haven’t been able to cure it, but we try to control it to the extent that we can. One of my mentors at Columbia was Richard Hofstadter, who wrote the highly influential essay “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” There is a great deal of paranoia that has operated in the political realm, and I think it’s spread to the cultural realm.
What’s your relationship with the other chaplains like?
It’s a very close relationship. We’re a small group, a small team, and we interact well together. The main ceremonies usually have chaplains of different faiths who preside and offer prayer, invocation and benediction. Our Hanukkah celebration brings together many different chaplains of different groups. And I certainly participate in celebrations at Christmas time and Easter time.
Do you interact a lot with the Jewish community? Do you have any sort of special relationship?
I interact a great deal with the Orthodox Jewish community and the Hasidic community in particular. They often come down to headquarters—we have special get-togethers just before the High Holy Days and before Easter—to let the police department know what their special needs are. And they have their own security units, which interact smoothly with the NYPD. They’re extraordinarily appreciative and recognize that the NYPD is absolutely indispensable to their own safety and security.
What do you do for the NYPD’s Shomrim society (the Jewish fraternal police organization) and for Jewish officers?
First of all, for many of them who are not affiliated with synagogues, I am their contact with Judaism. So whatever they need of a Jewish nature, they turn to me. But besides that, I conduct a prayer service, I write a column for Shomrim’s monthly newspaper, and I speak at monthly meetings about subjects that are relevant to Jewish life. We have a Passover food distribution and we have a celebration of Hanukkah together at police headquarters. The police commissioner and other dignitaries of all faiths attend that event. We also organize events that educate Jewish police officers about their Jewish background.
The Shomrim Society is actually about to celebrate its 100th birthday. We hope to have a large banquet to celebrate the occasion, and we’re putting together a video containing the history of the organization and celebrating the role of Jews in law enforcement in this country.
Have there always been Jews in the NYPD?
The first Jews came to America in 1654 from Recife, Brazil. There were 23 of them, and Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam was not very happy to receive them.
A man named Asser Levy was a member of that group. All men in New Amsterdam had to do militia duty, and Levy wanted to do militia duty along with all the rest. But Governor Stuyvesant didn’t like Jews. Not only that, Stuyvesant wanted to impose a tax on Asser Levy and the other Jews who came into the colony in 1654. But Levy refused to pay it. And when Stuyvesant threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t pay it, Levy protested to the directors of the Dutch West India company in Holland, and they upheld his right both to participate in a militia and also to be a citizen of New Amsterdam. So Asser Levy is considered to be the first Jewish police officer in New York City. And he goes back, as I say, to the very first Jews in the country.
Another prominent member of the Jewish community who became a police officer was a man by the name of Otto Raphael who lived on New York’s Lower East Side in the latter half of the 19th century. He became a local hero by saving a number of people from a burning building. He was also an amateur boxer who worked out at a YMCA in Manhattan. One day Theodore Roosevelt, who was the police commissioner at the time, came to visit this Y. He and Otto Raphael met and became very close friends. Roosevelt later hired Raphael as his boxing coach and recruited him to become a police officer. Raphael is credited with having persuaded Roosevelt, as president of the United States, to condemn the Kishinev Massacre in 1903, which was the worst anti-Jewish pogrom until the time of the Holocaust. As a result of his friendship with Raphael, Roosevelt was the only international figure, the only figure of importance anywhere in the world, who condemned Russia’s Czarist government for allowing this massacre to take place.
So Jews have been involved in New York law enforcement for a long time, and Jews have held every rank in the police department, including that of police commissioner—there was a police commissioner by the name of Howard Safir under Mayor Guilliani from 1996-2000. And Sandy Carreli was the chief of the department, the highest ranking uniformed officer, during the mayoralty of John Lindsay.
Do you feel like you’ve helped any Jewish police officers get closer to Judaism?
Absolutely. First of all, as a result of my efforts during the Koch administration, religious Jews were able to join the police department without having to violate the Sabbath and the restrictions of other Jewish holidays. That was never the case before. But today, Jewish officers are able to come into the police department and be put on a special schedule, which exempts them from work on the Sabbath.
By the way, I have always been a strong champion of Seventh Day Adventists. They are Christians, but they believe that the proper day of observance each week ought to be the Jewish Sabbath. And they don’t want to work on the Sabbath. And I have always been their champion. I felt that just as religious Jews shouldn’t have to work on the Sabbath, Seventh Day Adventists shouldn’t either.
Are you a Yankees guy or a Mets guy?
I’m a Yankees guy. But, if I find myself in Citi Field with a group of Mets fans, particularly if they’re playing a team from out of the city, I can cheer for the Mets too. And, two of my three children are Mets fans, one is a Yankee fan. So, I’ve had to be somewhat ecumenical just to keep peace in the family.
Is there anything else you think readers might want to know about the chief chaplain of the NYPD?
Just that, in my experience, I have felt that everything is interrelated. And, that there ought to be no conflict between your job and your love of your faith. And, your job ought to give you an opportunity to live your faith. And, I found that for me, being the best kind of police chaplain is also being the best kind of Jew.
I think that I’ve had a very blessed life. Most rabbis spend most of their time, understandably, with their own flock. But, by necessity, I interact with people of all backgrounds. And, that’s been very enriching for me. I feel very fortunate and I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve done. I’ve been doing it for 57 years, and every day is just as exciting as the first day. I’m very thankful to God to have had the opportunity to do it.
Featured image: Rabbi Kass speaking at a police memorial service at Temple Emanu-El.