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."