By Francesca Norsen-Tate, Religion Editor – Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass to Be Honored for 36 Years of Service To East Midwood Jewish Center at June 8 Dinner-Dance
Honoree Is Also Longest-Serving NYPD Chaplain
Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass will be honored at the East Midwood Jewish Center’s (EMJC) 90th Annual Dinner-Dance for 36 years of service as the Center’s esteemed and distinguished spiritual leader this coming Sunday, June 8.
“This event is the highlight of the Center’s social season,” said Toby Sanchez, co-president of EMJC. “It is a time to pay tribute to a leading rabbi, who is also chief chaplain of the New York City Police Department and who has contributed so much to our Center and city, enjoy each other’s company and, not coincidentally, it is a major fundraising event.”
Sanchez continued, “Rabbi Kass is a gifted orator whose uplifting, insightful and intellectually-stimulating sermons inspire us at Shabbat Services, the High Holidays and life cycles, as well as at community events.
Randy Grossman, co-president of the Center, pointed out, “Over the years, Rabbi Kass has exerted a powerful influence over the spiritual life of the synagogue and has devoted his entire professional life to ministering to the needs of others in the wider community, in the armed forces of our country and in the Police Department of our great city.”
“What makes East Midwood special?” Rabbi Kass said, “It is an all-service institution that provides for a person’s total needs – socially, spiritually, educationally and physically.”
Rabbi Kass served as an Air Force chaplain for two years, followed by 14 years as rabbi of the Astoria Center of Israel, before joining East Midwood Jewish Center to preside over his second pulpit. He is a past president of the Brooklyn Board of Rabbis and the New York Board of Rabbis and edited the United Synagogue Review and the Mercaz newsletter.
During his 36-year tenure at East Midwood Jewish Center, Rabbi Kass has been instrumental in organizing a program to help Russian Jews find neighborhood housing, as well as offering them English classes at EMJC. He also worked with the police to block off Ocean Avenue so that Russian Jews – and others – could dance and celebrate Simchat Torah as they did in their homeland. Rabbi Kass built community ties by hosting private and community Seders and Sukkot receptions that welcomed not only members, but neighbors as well. He also helped establish Braille Club, in which members transcribed books into Braille.
For the younger members of East Midwood and United Synagogue Youth (USY), he held group luncheons at his home following Sabbath services and worked closely with the Day School when two of the students were national winners of the Intel/Westinghouse competition. He was the driving force to get EMJC children to experience Camp Ramah and he helped organize USY and Camp Ramah Pilgrimages to Israel. He participated on the UJA, Israel Bonds, Seminary breakfast committee and helped lead an interfaith trip to Athens, Rome, and Israel.
Moreover, Rabbi Kass is highly esteemed around New York City. He is now the longest-serving chaplain in the history of the NYPD, where he has served since being appointed in 1966. He was promoted to chief chaplain in 2002 and became the first chaplain to achieve the rank of assistant chief. He administers an office of seven chaplains — four of them are Catholic, one is Protestant and one is Muslim, in addition to himself. He visits precincts throughout the city and considers himself a clergyman to all, not just the NYPD’s Jewish members. It is estimated that there are 2,500 uniformed police officers who are Jewish out of a total 35,000.
As chief chaplain, he has made East Midwood Jewish Center a place at which many important city and police events are hosted. Every mayor and police commissioner has dropped by for a visit. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly came for Passover dinners. Commissioner Bill Bratton was the guest speaker when Rabbi Kass was installed as president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Kass has also given the invocation at the swearing-in of every police commissioner since he came on the job. Recently, Commissioner Bratton sent out a Tweet saluting Rabbi Kass’s “outstanding service for almost half a century.”
The Shomrim Society, a fraternal organization for NYC Jewish police officers, has its annual prayer service and dinners at EMJC. Rabbi Kass has been honored as the group’s “Man of the Year” and, before Passover, led its first trip, pilgrimage and march to Israel in March 1972.
Kass, who teaches ethics at the Police Academy, waged a successful campaign to have the force formally recognize the religious right of Jewish police officers to take time off to observe the Sabbath.
At the celebration of 100 Years of Jewish Chaplaincy of the New York Police Department in June 2011, Cardinal Edward Egan, former archbishop of New York, mentioned that Rabbi Kass “is a man of God. We listen to you because we know you listen to God and we thank you, Rabbi, for being wise and holy.”
Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “Across the decades, Rabbi Kass’s “wisdom [and] compassion have been a great gift to the police department. He is a scholar, a counselor and an inspirational speaker, equally adept at quoting Frank Sinatra and the great Talmudic debates.”
Remarking on the rabbi’s people skills, New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte wrote that Kass, besides counseling and offering spiritual guidance to officers of all ranks, was credited, in 1977, with talking a suicidal man off a ledge of the World Trade Center. Four years later, he convinced an armed Jewish hostage-taker to give up his gun and release a female hostage for a pastrami sandwich. Together with his fellow chaplains, Rabbi Kass spent countless hours at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, providing support to the thousands of first responders performing rescue and recovery work.
Rabbi Kass has said that World Trade Center terrorist attack on 9/11 was unquestionably the “greatest challenge” that he has ever faced in his career.
“The sight at Ground Zero was sickening,” he said. “It was a veritable war zone. Destruction was everywhere. It was incredible to think that those Twin Towers were no longer standing. I was called to Police Headquarters, where I worked with my colleagues in the police chaplaincy to offer strength and comfort to families of police officers who were unaccounted for; 23 were missing. Even those police veterans who had seen every conceivable phenomenon were crying.”
In the immediate aftermath, he met with the gathered relatives, trying to comfort them. He spent time with families over the ensuing months, trying to help those who had lost relatives.
Rabbi Kass told his EMJC congregation “that the attack brought out the best and the worst in the human spirit. Those who executed this sordid scheme represent the most nefarious ingredient of the human personality. On the other hand, the heroism, courage, self-sacrifice, nobility and generosity evoked by the attack validate our profoundest beliefs in man’s redemptive potential.”
A participant in “A Prayer for America” held in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001, Rabbi Kass was nearly drowned out by applause, reported one broadcaster, when he said, “What the victims want more than anything else, what they would tell us if they were here, is that we should continue to live for what they died for — a place where government by the people, for the people and of the people will not perish.”
A native of Paterson, N.J., Rabbi Kass earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in History from Columbia University and a B.H.L. and M.H.L. from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also received rabbinical training. He earned his Ph.D. in History and Philosophical Foundations of Education from New York University. Besides graduating Summa Cum Laude and being the Class Salutatorian of his undergraduate class at Columbia, he was also a Quackenbush Foundation Scholar and a Harry J. Carman and National Woodrow Wilson Fellow. In 2009, Rabbi Kass was a recipient of the coveted Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which pays tribute to our nation’s immigrant heritage, as well as individual achievement.
Rabbi Kass and his wife Miryom have been married for 50 years. She is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University with a master’s degree from Brooklyn College. She has taught at the Rabbi Harry Halpern Day School, the East Midwood Jewish Center’s Adult Institute and the Talmud Torah High School. She is a member of EMJC’s Sisterhood, past president of both Dena Hadassah and a vice president of East Midwood Neighborhood Association (EMNA).
For information on dinner reservations and placing an ad in the journal, please call the Center office at 718-338-3800. Co-Chairpersons of the 90th Annual Dinner Dance are Elaine Adelin and Amy Nitzky. The Center is located at 1625 Ocean Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11210.