Take Five with Rabbi Alvin Kass ’57

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Rabbi Alvin Kass ’57 is the first-ever three-star chaplain in the New York City Police Department. Kass joined the NYPD in 1966 as the third Jewish chaplain in the department’s history; he has served seven mayors and 16 police commissioners, and was on-call during 9-11.

He is a former head of the New York Board of Rabbis, and led a Conservative congregation at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn for 36 years, until his retirement in 2014.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Scared to death. My parents dropped me off and I felt totally lost. I adjusted pretty quickly, but the first week I was really ready to quit — to have to read 1,365 pages of The Iliad in one week plus all of the other pages from CC — I have never worked like that in my life! It really was a kind of culture shock.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I had a wonderful living situation, in Hartley. I had two roommates: Robert Alter ’57 has become a well-known authority on Hebrew literature and a translator of the Bible, and Shalom Schwartz ’57, who became chairman of the Department of Psychology at Hebrew University. We knew each other and requested to be together.

What class do you most remember and why?

Studying with Richard Hofstadter GSAS’42 was the most extraordinary experience. I would go to his office and talk with him and get his insights on history. He was just so brilliant and everything that he said is still valid — he’s still being quoted. Also, Henry Graff GSAS’49’s course in diplomatic history. I think he’s the only teacher that my daughter [Sarah Kass ’87] and I both had.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Chock full o’Nuts! It was across from College Walk on the corner of 116th and Broadway. I used to have lunch there –– I would get a tuna salad sandwich for 25 cents. Almost every day, tuna salad sandwich, a whole wheat donut and a cup of coffee.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would take more science. I certainly had a good liberal arts education and I fulfilled the science requirement, but I would have liked to have more physics and chemistry.