The force is with Rabbi Kass

Rabbi Alvin Kass’s official NYPD portrait. Photo courtesy of the NYPD
At 83, the chief chaplain of the NYPD counsels cops and teaches at John Jay College. “When you’re working with young people,” he says, “you stay young.”
By Christopher Moore

Clearly the force is with him — maybe because he’s been with them for so long.

Rabbi Alvin Kass, the chief chaplain of the New York Police Department, has offered spiritual counsel to cops and their families for 53 years. At 83, he’s the city’s longest-serving police chaplain ever.

“To do this kind of work you really have to love people,” Kass says. “And you have to love cops. What’s ironic is that I never knew a cop until I came onto this job.”

Kass is a father of three who led his own synagogue in Brooklyn for 36 years and currently teaches two classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the third Jewish chaplain in NYPD history. He spoke in January at a special dinner in his honor a block from Lincoln Center at Congregation Habonim, a temple he enjoyed discovering and visiting with his late wife. Days later, Kass sat down in his Riverside Boulevard living room to talk with Straus News about his commitment to cops, and how the team of about 12 chaplains serves those who protect and serve.

How did you see the police department change over the years?

Well, I’m really a living a history because there are very few people around who go back as far as I do. I came in in 1966. That was the time of the Knapp Commission hearings ... so I was appointed during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay. As a result of the Knapp commission hearings it was felt that the problem was systemic and really had to be totally redone and Mayor Lindsay brought in a new police commissioner by the name of Pat Murphy. Among the things he did was to create a police department ethics board. The police department ethics board was designed to help police officers obtain advice about how to handle themselves.

So they’re getting real-time advice during a situation or closer to it?

Yes. Commissioner Murphy appointed me to be the chair of the chaplain’s unit. Little did I know it was going to be a lifetime sentence. I am the only original surviving member of the police department ethics board, which is still operating. We still do the same sort of thing. We respond to queries and we deliberate and we publish our findings. But the purpose of it is to give police officers advice about how to handle themselves in touchy situations. And if they follow the advice of the police department ethics board, they’ll be fine.

What is the biggest misconception about the police department?

(Long pause.) I think some people don’t really understand the mission.

Well, you know I’m going to say: what is the mission?

The mission is to help people. The mission is to serve humanity, keep them safe and secure. Sometimes they see police officers in situations where they are told they are driving too fast or they’ve made a wrong turn, but that’s for their safety. What’s most important and what this administration has done with tremendous commitment and devotion is to make sure that the police department is an accurate reflection of the community.

How many hours a week does it take to be a police chaplain?

It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of time. It’s a 24-hour-a-day business. I respond to emergencies. And most emergencies occur usually during very untoward hours. It also involves a willingness to sacrifice your own personal desires.

You were the third Jewish chaplain. Catholicism was the dominant religion among police officers, and still is. What have you learned about interfaith relationships and the values that extend beyond just one religion?

The most important thing I’ve learned in 53 years as a chaplain, which exceeds anybody else’s tenure, is that if you only know one religious tradition you don’t know any. I’ve done a lot of reading of other sacred texts. They’ve given me an appreciation of who I am and of what Judaism means. All people look to their faith for the kind of strength and support they need in hours of difficulty. But when they do that, and realize how important their own religion is to them, they ought to give a thought that for other people, their religion is similarly important to them. Because of that, there’s no need to be judgmental.

What is the secret?

Of what?

Of you doing this for 53 years?

I just love what I do. A person gets a certain amount of years in this world and you’d like to spend your time doing things that bring you satisfaction. Was it Henry David Thoreau who said that most people live lives of quiet desperation? I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to spend my life doing something that brings me fulfillment by helping others. That’s the crucial thing.

You also teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. What do you get out of that?

It keeps me young. Police officers do that too. When you’re working with young people, you stay young. And when I teach college-age people, I’ve got to try to communicate to them in an idiom that they will understand.

This interview was edited for clarity and space.