The NYPD’s oldest officer is an 88-year-old rabbi called Alvin

Rabbi Alvin Kass has served the New York Police Department for 58 years and has no thought of quitting


Rabbi Alvin Kass in his NYPD uniform (Photo: Ben Clerkin)

As the longest-serving member of the NYPD, Rabbi Alvin Kass has some advice for the Jewish community drawn from his 58 years of service with New York’s finest.

The Chief Chaplain of the NYPD, now 88-years-old, says more Jews should become police officers.

From his office above a busy precinct, Rabbi Kass says: “Some people think that the role of Jews in law enforcement is tangential to who we are. When you think of Jews, you think of doctors, lawyers, scientists.

“But the truth of the matter is that Jews are pioneers in law enforcement. If you go back to the Bible, chapter 17 book of Deuteronomy, it says, judges and police officers, you shall appoint in your gates already.

“Our ancestors thousands of years ago appreciated that human nature is such that civilisation can survive only if you've got police officers and judges who resolve disputes between people.”

Rabbi Kass smiles when he talks about his almost six decades with the NYPD. He has clearly loved every minute of it. But he had to ask a friend's advice when he was offered the job in 1966.

“He said ‘take it, but know one thing; you're going to fall in love with this job and you're never going to want to leave New York City’,” he says.

“And that's exactly what I did. I took the job and I fell in love with it. I had never been in a police station, never knew cops, don't even remember playing cops and robbers as a kid. I became the rabbi to these cops and I fell in love with them the whole rest of my life with cops.”

Life almost worked out very differently. Rabbi Kass was offered and had accepted a scholarship to Harvard Law School after graduating from Columbia. But at the last moment he decided to go to rabbinical school.

“I thought to myself that I would probably find a more satisfying career where I felt I was helping people,” he recalls.

So instead of a big corner office at a major law firm with a view over Central Park, Rabbi Kass works from a snug office that’s a squeeze for more than two people with a window looking out over the higgledy piggledy rooftops of the East Village. But he loves being here in the heart of a bustling police precinct with colleagues on the frontline whose faces light up when you mention his name.

On a typical day at work Rabbi Kass visits precincts across the city to counsel officers of all faiths.

“I don't wait for police officers to call me. I go around to different precincts and I turn out guys at roll calls, so they get to know my name and see me,” he says.

“People call with all kinds of problems. There's personal problems with their wives, with their children. Sometimes philosophical problems.

“I love cops, but I know one thing; cops deal with life and life out on the street is raw. You see the worst of people sometimes you see the best of people, but a lot of situations in life can make you cynical. And I think that religious faith helps to protect them against a destructive cynicism.

“Cops have this realism about life. As a rabbi, I want to understand life. Nobody understands life better than cops. There's a saying in this department: ‘a cop has a front row seat to the greatest show on earth’.”

For Rabbi Kass the perspective religious faith offers can be vital to improving sometimes faltering morale among officers exposed to the worst sides of human nature.

“An important dimension of religious faith is to try to see things from a larger perspective,” he explains.

“Sometimes what you do isn't always appreciated by the public. But if you take a look at the larger picture, you see that for the most part, people love police officers and they appreciate what police officers do.“

On occasions when crimes involve Jews, Rabbi Kass is called into action by his colleagues. Once, some years ago, he was called to a hostage situation where an armed Jewish man was holding a Jewish woman at gunpoint. Rabbi Kass spoke to him all night and by morning the man was hungry. Spotting an opening, Rabbi Kass traded a pastrami sandwich for the weapon. He agreed.

“We figured that it's all over now. But then he says, I have two guns. So we're back at ground zero. So I said, look, the cops brought me a pastrami sandwich, but I haven't eaten mine because it's not kosher and I keep kosher.

“I said, you can have it, but you have to give up your gun. And he said, alright. So he gave up the second gun and we passed the sandwich to him and the cops immediately rushed him. That was my career as a hostage negotiator, pretty successful.“

Being married to Rabbi Kass also has its perks: his wife Miriam spent their 40th wedding anniversary sleeping on the sofa in a police captain’s office during the great blackout of 2003. Rabbi Kass had bought tickets for Broadway shows, made dinner reservations and booked the honeymoon suite at the Grand Hyatt Hotel for the weekend when the massive power cut hit New York. He walked with Miriam to a police precinct.

“The captain said, look, you can have my office and I'll go out elsewhere. So I gave my wife the couch and I went on the floor, but I couldn't sleep. Around midnight, I heard the captain say he's going to go out and do a patrol. So I said ‘I'll go out with you’.

“We patrolled on the streets of Manhattan. It was quite a sight. It was utterly black, but people made the best of it. They were sitting on the curbs and they were singing and playing guitars, and everybody seemed to be having a great time.”

Virtually all the shops were closed and Rabbi Kass brought back the only food he could find for his wife from the one deli that was still open.

“The big wedding banquet or anniversary banquet that we had on our 40th wedding anniversary consisted of a tuna fish salad sandwich and a piece of cheesecake.”

The position of Chief Chaplain is clearly more than a job for Rabbi Kass; it’s a calling. Even his sons have felt it. Both are medical doctors and both also volunteer as police surgeons, helping the NYPD in any way they can when asked to.

“I do it because I love it and I love to be with police officers. And I hope I'm fulfilling some kind of role that maybe my creator had for me on earth.”

Smiling, Rabbi Kass says retirement is not something he’s considering as long as “my mind is working and the body is working”. His smile expands. “And so long as they put up with me.”

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