I was forced to turn down Rabbi Alvin Kass's invitation to attend Tuesday morning's annual meeting at police headquarters between the New York Police Department and members of the Jewish community to discuss security at synagogues in advance of Passover; I write this column first thing in the morning. But I did manage to visit him in his office the previous afternoon-less to discuss security than matters of the spirit.
Rabbis come in all shapes and sizes. But it's probably safe to say that Rabbi Kass is the only one in the metropolitan area, or greater planet Earth for that matter, who attends to his flock in the uniform of a high-ranking police official. It boasts gold stars on its shoulders and lapel pins depicting the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
"I'm an assistant chief and the chief chaplain," explained the rabbi, who marked his 46th year on the job a few weeks ago. He's the longest-serving chaplain in the history of the NYPD and the first to achieve the rank of assistant chief.
I think all Jews would like to know, or at least I'm presumptuous enough to believe that most of them would be intrigued by, the answer to this question: How many Jews are there in the NYPD? I know there must be a few. I've met some myself. But when I think of the Jewish people, the profession of law enforcement, and the NYPD in particular, doesn't automatically spring to mind.
"Approximately 4,000," out of a force of 34,500, Rabbi Kass answered. "Close to 3,000 uniformed and 1,000 civilian."
The rabbi said that enrollment among Jews in the NYPD is actually on the rise. He attributes that partially to the allure of a secure job with benefits in a troubled economy, but also to his assertion that the NYPD is sensitive to the obligations of observant Jews. "There's been a tremendous influx of orthodox Jewish people, I'm proud to say," he reported. "We make sure orthodox Jews have an opportunity to work in this department and not violate the Sabbath."
He added: "In Israel, a Jewish officer can't take off for the Sabbath." Rabbi Kass admitted that has something to do with Israel being a Jewish state. "If everybody took off for the Sabbath, there'd be no police force."
The rabbi administers an office of seven chaplains-four of them are Catholic, and there is one Protestant and one Muslim in addition to him. He also leads a Conservative congregation at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. And he served as president of the New York Board of rabbis for a year during the 1990s.
He visits precincts throughout the city and considers himself a clergyman to all, not just the NYPD's Jewish members. "My flock is a group of close to 50,000 people," he said. "I walk around and talk to people. Some of them stroll up and tell you about very intimate things: people have marital difficulties; maybe a child is very rebellious and won't listen, and it creates conflict between the husband and wife; some cops have a hard time managing economically.
"Manhattan has some tremendous temptations," he added. "Cops sometimes succumb."
I assumed he was talking about bribery and corruption. But he wasn't, exactly. "Cops in uniform are often good-looking," he explained delicately; the temptations he was referring to are of a romantic nature. "They feel guilty or don't know how to handle it."
I wondered whether, say, a Christian or Muslim officer might be reluctant to confide in a rabbi. Rabbi Kass, 76, laughed. "I suspect many Catholics come to me and tell me things because they don't want their priests to know," he said.
When the rabbi joined the police force in 1966, he was 30 years old. He had heard about a job opening, and basically applied on impulse after reading an inspiring article about John Lindsay, the city's new mayor, in Time magazine. "I'd never known a police officer in my life," he said.
His ambition at the time, besides being a rabbi-he had a congregation in Astoria-was to become a history professor. He'd graduated from Columbia, where he studied with the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter, had a Ph.D. from NYU and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"It was a game-changer," Rabbi Kass acknowledged. "It changed my whole life."
His responsibilities, besides counseling cops when they sidle up to him at stationhouses, include delivering invocations-he did so at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's second inaugural-and, sadly, sometimes notifying next-of-kin when an officer is killed in the line of duty. (When Officer Keith Levine was murdered while trying to thwart a robbery in Harlem in 1991, Rabbi Kass traveled upstate by police helicopter at 3 a.m. to notify the family, then flew back to the city, landed in Prospect Park and led his congregation in that Saturday morning's services.)
He was also pressed into service for months in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said that one of the most moving services he ever conducted was for emergency personnel separated from their families on Yom Kippur, the week after the terrorist attacks. He attended so many funerals at St. Patrick's that Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged him publicly in the audience at an event at John Jay College. "Before he spoke he spotted me and said, 'It's nice to see you at a place other than St. Patrick's.'"
The rabbi was once even responsible for ending a hostage situation peacefully. In 1981, NYPD negotiators summoned him to a Midtown office building after discovering that the hostage taker was Jewish. He'd used a gun to take hostage a woman who'd spurned him. "I talked to him all night to give up his gun," Rabbi Kass remembered. "I was an utter failure. But by morning he was hungry."
Pastrami sandwiches were ordered from the nearby Carnegie Deli. "They got one for him and one for me," the rabbi went on. "I couldn't eat it. I only eat kosher meat. I said, 'You can have this pastrami sandwich,'" meaning the one ordered for the hostage taker, "'but you have to give up your gun.' He gave up the gun, but he had another gun.
"Have you seen the sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli?" the rabbi said. "They're huge." Nonetheless, the perpetrator polished his off and was still hungry.
"I said, 'I'll give [mine] to you but you have to give up the other gun.' He gave up the other gun and the police rushed him."
Rabbi Kass said his family's Seder this year will be smaller than usual because his wife, Miriam, isn't well. But in past years the crowd breaking matzoth and sipping kosher wine at his home has included Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
"Commissioner Kelly has been to many of my Seders," Rabbi Kass said.
I had a hard time imaging the no-nonsense police commissioner festively singing along to "Dayenu," but Rabbi Kass said he does.
And what about the allegory of "Chad Gadya" ("One little goat... that my father bought for two zuzim"), where it's customary to circle the table, each guest reading a verse that builds on the proceeding one? Does Mr. Kelly participate in that, too?
"Absolutely," the rabbi said.
Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2012